Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy gets thumbs down by two Japanese legislators

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Two members of Japan’s House of Representatives – both former government ministers – suggested on Wednesday that US President Joe Biden’s plan for greater integration among Washington’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners is an inferior substitute for the trading bloc the US abandoned five years ago.

Taro Kono, who served as Japan’s defence minister and foreign minister, and Takashi Yamashita, the country’s former justice minister, called on Washington to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which Donald Trump withdrew as one of his first actions as US president in 2017.

US President Joe Biden is promoting an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Washington’s allies and partners in the region. Photo: Abaca Press/TNS
US President Joe Biden is promoting an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Washington’s allies and partners in the region. Photo: Abaca Press/TNS

Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Kono said that the objectives that Biden has laid out for his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) would be better served through CPTPP if the US were a member.

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The partnership, which includes New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Mexico and seven other countries, accounts for about 13 per cent of global commerce.

“When the United States proposed to be part of TPP, it was … to create a rule-making body for the Indo-Pacific, and that’s why we paid a huge political cost [to join],” Kono said. “When we managed to sign the TPP, United States simply left.

“Now the Biden administration is talking about Indo-Pacific Economic whatever, I would say forget about it,” he added.

Most details of IPEF have yet to be made public, but the White House has released enough of the plan to differentiate it from a traditional trade bloc based on free-trade agreements.

What is IPEF, the new US-led economic framework for the Asia-Pacific?

It seeks to establish labour and environmental standards as well as trade rules, covering a wide range of sectors, from data protection to carbon emissions. Member countries can opt to participate in parts of the framework.

Yamashita said that such opt-outs would make countries in the region question whether Washington is fully behind its own plan.

“I don’t know exactly about the content of the IPEF and some of our friends in the region do not know that,” he said. “I think if IPEF is a non-binding regional framework, maybe it could send the message to the Asian countries that the United States is not so much interested.”

The Japanese officials echoed misgivings by US lawmakers of both parties about Biden’s approach in the region, particularly since China has applied to join CPTPP and IPEF does not so far include any provisions about access to markets. US critics say that market-access elements are essential for the plan to be meaningful.

Using CPTPP and TPP interchangeably, Kono said that the partnership’s standards for trade, labour, environmental and intellectual property rights would have ensured that China could have been excluded – an objective that was never made explicit but was seen as the overriding US concern.

“The TPP set such a high standard that China … was not able to meet those targets,” Kono said. “So the US [and] Japan were supposed to be leading the rule-making for the Indo-Pacific.

“Hopefully, the American government or the American leader would [experience a] rude awakening and decide to change their policy and come back to the TPP.”

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