Biden’s Asia trip to promote IPEF will fizzle out, as Washington cannot offer more market opening steps
Published: May 21, 2022 06:01 PM Updated: May 22, 2022 07:29 AM
Indo-Pacific Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Indo-Pacific Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin noted that China hopes that US President Joe Biden's latest Asian trip will focus on "promoting solidarity and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, instead of plotting division and confrontation".

Before Biden's visit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan highlighted that Biden's trip to Asia is "not targeted at any one country," but at "an audience the world over about what American leadership, working flanked by allies and like-minded partners, can deliver for people."

These words however, cannot dim the fact that the main goal of Biden's trip to South Korea and Japan is trying to form a new political posturing against China, by establishing an alliance around Washington in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington's real intention behind Sullivan's diplomatic words is no secret to China and all Asian countries.

In its official strategy, the US has clearly referred to China as a "pacing challenge" and a "strategic competitor". Therefore, it is self-evident which nation is and will be one of the main targets of the Biden administration in the coming months.

One of Biden's tasks during his Asian trip was to promote his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a central part of White House's Indo-Pacific Strategy. According to the Financial Times, Biden has decided to "water down" IPEF dilute the language of the statement that he will unveil in Tokyo on Monday to attract more countries to join the deal.

If such a change of the language is real, then it is possible that Washington is trying to make itself appear less desperate for the signing of IPEF so that more countries can have more time to decide if they will join the pact. IPEF needed to include a large portion of Southeast Asian and other emerging economies to be successful, just as one expert explained to the British media.

IPEF is deemed a "miniature substitute" for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which former US president Donald Trump scrapped. And since China is spearheading a comprehensive free-trade effort in Asia, Washington is in urgent need of a new US-led economic cooperation regime.

Moreover, US Indo-Pacific Strategy is too focused on the areas of military and security, which greatly decreases the appeal of the US strategy to many Asian countries. As a result, the US has to announce a new framework with a new title called IPEF, so that some will be lured to follow its steps.

Of course, whether the US can have enough resources to realize its goals, is another matter. And judging from the much-trumpeted IPEF by Washington, the Biden administration won't "water down" the geostrategic implication of the pact.

Nevertheless, Asian countries are always on alert about the US' efforts to make a strong comeback on issues of economic cooperation, because they know that economic initiatives in Washington's eyes actually serve its security goal.

Asian economies are interested in what economic benefits Washington can offer. This might include the US opening up more of its market to Asian people, whether to remove tariff barriers, and pledging more investments. Even if Washington promises more market opening measures, that doesn't mean Asian countries will be completely subservient to the US, or to act as its pawn against China. The majority of Asian countries don't want to take sides.

Washington is trying to lead an economic grouping that excludes Beijing, but the exclusion of China will surely weaken the effectiveness of any economic cooperation. China is the second-largest economy in the world. It has become a top trading partner of over 120 countries and regions, and the largest one for ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea. Against this backdrop, to form an economic cooperation framework without China is like building a house without a pillar.

China's important position in the global manufacturing supply chain is irreplaceable, at least in the foreseeable future. Even if the Biden administration wants to push other states to decouple from China, it needs to think whether it can really provide other countries with the products that China produces and distributes. And even in the remote possibility it could, would the price be acceptably low for other countries?

In the end, Washington's bid to use politics and security to change or even subvert the logic of economy will never work.

The author is deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn