On September 8-9, the first meeting of the trade ministers of the member countries of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, which is oftentimes abbreviated to, for some reason, only IPEF (rather than, say, IPEFP), was held in Los Angeles. US President Joe Biden announced the very fact of this association being created on May 23 this year in Tokyo on the sidelines of a Quad summit, which was held for the first time in direct contact with the leaders of the member countries.
The Joint Statement issued by the White House on the same May 23 listed 13 members (soon joined by Fiji, the first of the island states of Oceania) and outlined the objectives of the IPEF and the challenges to be addressed as a matter of priority. Alongside the USA, Japan, South Korea and Australia, India (which, it should be recalled, is also one of the four Quad members), and seven of the ten countries in the Southeast Asian sub-region, are also on the list.
It would be necessary to comment on the motives of the US leadership to initiate this project, which mainly come down to the success of China’s key foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Washington, at last (after the Joe Biden administration came to power), realized that in the fight against its main geopolitical opponent, the military toolkit, which continues to play a major role in US foreign policy practice, is absolutely insufficient.
In the Indo-Pacific region at least, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which originated in the 1990s in Washington, could act as a counterweight to the BRI. However, the previous Republican administration considered the TPP project to be contrary to the country’s economic interests and, in his first act, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the association.
It would seem that the TPP was no longer an option. But it was literally saved by Japan, the key US ally in the region, and, after its signing in early 2018 as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, became operational within a year.
The US has been pondering for some time whether to return to the (now) CPTPP. But, apparently, image and prestige considerations prevailed and the idea was abandoned. Especially since Beijing announced its intention to join the CPTPP, the very Beijing which already leads the region’s largest association, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But by that time, again, Washington had definitively concluded that it needed something to counter China in terms of inter-state economic cooperation, both globally and regionally.
As early as June 2020, six months after Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, a G7 summit held in the British county of Cornwall saw the announcement of a grand global project under the ambitious title “Build Back Better World” (B3W). With this project, Washington clearly intended to bring that “something of its own” into world politics, capable of competing with the BRI.
However, once the B3W project was launched, the question arose as to the source of its funding, the total amount of which was estimated at an unimaginable $40 trillion. This was against the background of the then emerging global economic crisis, the real scale of which, however, could be hardly foreseen. Although some organizational fuss about B3W at the middle-to-lower official level does occasionally occur, the acronym has all but disappeared from the pages of the would media. Incidentally, the same fate befell another (no less “global”) project on the transition to a “green economy,” adopted a year later in Glasgow by the same authors.
Nevertheless, once again, the theme of the need to come up with “at least something” to counter BRI has not disappeared and the IPEF should be seen as a stripped-down (“regional”) version of the same B3W with the same political agenda. In fact, that is what a leading Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, said in plain words in an editorial commenting on the Los Angeles event. For example, the article says that the sole reason the IPEF exists is because “a framework must be developed as a way to compete with China.”
With regard to the latter, once again, there are clear political motives for the creation of the IPEF. Meanwhile, the increasingly important positioning of India and the Southeast Asian countries in the political struggle between the two global powers is moving into focus. And while the document (on “basic provisions on trade”) from the Los Angeles meeting does have the signatures of seven (out of a total of ten) ASEAN member countries, the world media immediately drew attention to the absence of India among signatories.
For the author, the latter fact was further evidence of India’s skillful balancing in the power field being shaped by other leading global players. It should be recalled that earlier India was not part of the aforementioned RCEP, of which China is the informal leader.
In other words, all the efforts made by Washington in recent years to “pull” India into an anti-China (and anti-Russia) camp have been pointless. This undoubtedly indicates that China is gaining positive experience as it “gets used” to its new role as one of the leading players of the global game, in which immediate and tactical elements and benefits must be separated from long-term strategic ones. The former include, for example, everything that happened two years ago during the conflict in the highland region of Ladakh, separating China and India.
Finally, the holding of the first IPEF ministerial meeting once again highlights two major interconnected problems of the contemporary world order. The first is due to the division of humanity into two very unequal parts, of which the numerically smaller part controls the majority of all kinds of benefits.
This disbalance is aggravated by another problem, that of the division within the already “successful” part of humanity. Instead of pooling available resources in order to solve the main problem mentioned, there has been increased competition between the various “successful” factions.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.