Trade in the time of Pacific Notions

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit on-way now in San Francisco is strong on messaging Washington’s engagement with the growth-producing region. It is, however, limited by the US’ scepticism about China. Negotiations for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which have been pegged to this Apec meeting, have not kept pace with initial expectations. The US has little to offer in terms of market access and Asian economies are baulking at labour and environment standards IPEF is proposing. These two issues constitute the core of trade relations across the Pacific and will shape the degree of engagement.

Then there is the Chinese bear hug, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) coming into force earlier this year. Economies in the Asia-Pacific are being pulled closer into this axis despite misgivings over Beijing’s disregard for trade and investment niceties. European economies, for that matter, do not share the strong scepticism of the US about China and are individually raising their engagement with the world’s largest trading bloc. Asean, likewise, is increasing its interdependence with Beijing. Despite the best efforts of Washington, there can be no Asia-Pacific without China.

A reluctant US has made progress on an early warning system for supply chain disruptions and improved cooperation over decarbonisation. There is some headway in combating corruption and tax evasion. The US, however, has not been able to push data globalisation as it draws up tighter rules for technology companies. IPEF is expected to be a drawn-out process considering its ambition of creating a value-based trade alternative to the tariff-determined RCEP. Yet, the going has been particularly slow, since the Joe Biden administration resurrected the US game in the Asia-Pacific. Unless the US sheds some of its doubts over granting market access, Apec and IPEF may become a sideshow for global trade whose centre of gravity is shifting to the Asia-Pacific, ‘Indo-Pacific’ or otherwise.


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