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Biden unveils a US-Asia trade initiative that falls short of a free trade deal

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

TOKYO — President Joe Biden on Monday unveiled an initiative that he said would bind the U.S. and Asian economies more closely but that falls short of a free trade agreement and remains vague on details.

The newly named group, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, is intended to increase cooperation on trade, energy, the supply chain and anti-corruption efforts and counter the growing influence of China. Leaders of the framework have yet to flesh out how the goals would be met — and do not even define the effort as a pact — in an open-ended strategy used to lure countries to join and stay in the bloc.

At an official launch event in Tokyo intended to convey unity, Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were joined by representatives from other member countries who appeared virtually. In a possible sign that the new framework was not drawing enthusiasm, several of the countries did not send their top leader to the announcement.

“We’re writing the new rules for the 21st century economy that are going to help all of our countries’ economies grow faster and fairer,” Biden said.

Leaders throughout the region have been pressing for a traditional free trade deal that would open American and Asian markets to each other and help Pacific countries compete with China’s economic dominance. But the Pacific trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration a decade ago is politically toxic in the U.S., excoriated by the labor movement on the left and abandoned by former President Trump after he campaigned against it in 2016.

Kishida praised the new framework as a positive sign that the U.S. was engaging in the region but made clear that it did not go far enough during a news conference with Biden earlier in the day.


“Our position remains unchanged,” he said. “We think it’s desirable for the United States to return” to the Obama-era trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed a similar sentiment, saying the new initiative could be “a valuable platform for the United States to engage in economic diplomacy in the region” while adding that he is hoping for “more ambitious” collaboration in the future.

Muhammad Lutfi, Indonesia’s trade minister, cautioned that the group should not merely be used to contain other countries, a likely reference to China.

There are no binding requirements for the countries in the group at this point and no expectation that any aspect of the still-unwritten plan will need congressional approval in the United States. A two-page fact-sheet included some aspirational language but no details.


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