Tokyo (CNN)President Joe Biden on Monday said the thirteen nations joining his long-sought economic plan for Asia were “signing up to work toward an economic vision that will deliver for all people on Earth.”
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is Biden’s attempt at engaging a region coming increasingly under the influence of China. He unveiled it as he began the second leg of his debut tour of Asia. The announcement was one of the centerpieces of Biden’s visit to the continent, which began last week in South Korea and is continuing this week in Japan.
“We’re here today for one simple purpose: the future of the 21st Century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific. Our region,” Biden said as he launched the plan.
“This framework should drive a race to the top,” he said.
Biden is walking a delicate balance in revealing the economic framework. While Asian nations have been clamoring for a way to partner with the United States to reduce dependance on China, the President is also facing protectionist sentiments at home, where economic pain in the form of higher prices has proved the central issue in November’s midterm elections.
Biden said Monday he did not believe a recession was inevitable, but acknowledged the pain was real.
“It’s bad,” he said, suggesting later that improvement could be a long time coming.
“This is going to be a haul. This is going to take some time,” he said, arguing things could have been much worse had he not taken steps like cultivating foreign investments in the US economy.
Before unveiling the plan, Biden called on Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and sat for bilateral talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, discussing issues related to China, Taiwan and North Korea.
“The United States remains fully committed to Japanese, Japan’s defense, and we will face the challenges of today and the future together,” Biden said in his meeting with Kishida, their first formal face-to-face.
“The purpose of the visit is to increase our cooperation with other nations of the region and deliver concrete benefits to the people of the Indo-Pacfic region,” Biden said, going on to thank Kishida for joining a US-led effort to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Biden was welcomed to the Akasaka Palace with a stately ceremony that included the playing of national anthems and an inspection of ceremonial honor guards. Biden watched and placed his hand on his heart for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.
China has loomed over each of Biden’s stops, a mostly unspoken but ever-present factor in his push to reorient American foreign policy to focus more on Asia. It became explicit on Monday when Biden, speaking on China’s doorstep in Tokyo, said the US would be willing to intervene militarily should China invade Taiwan. While acknowledging the US still agrees with the “One China” policy, Biden said that the idea of Taiwan being taken by force “is (just not) appropriate.” A White House official said later the US position on the “One China” policy had not changed.
When he meets Tuesday with leaders of a revitalized “Quad” grouping — the US, Japan, India and Australia — it will be with the tacit intention of countering Beijing’s attempts to expand its influence among its neighbors.
The economic framework comes with a similar goal. Ever since then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) — the massive trade agreement negotiated during the Obama presidency — the US has been without a defined plan to engage this region economically.
Meanwhile, China has secured several trade agreements with its neighbors, and has sought to wield its economic influence globally through the Belt and Road Initiative.
The plan Biden will announce Monday isn’t a trade agreement in the traditional sense. It includes one “pillar” related to trade, but also incorporates other areas like making supply chains more resilient, promoting clean energy and combating corruption.
The nations participating in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, alongside the US.
The roster represents a relatively wide swath of Asia, from highly advanced economies like Japan and South Korea to countries that haven’t always aligned with the US on the economic front. But it doesn’t include Taiwan, which had been an open question as Biden was preparing a plan meant to create an economic sphere to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
By unveiling the framework, Biden appears to be acknowledging he has little intention of rejoining the TPP, which remains unpopular among US lawmakers who would need to ratify the deal. Instead, he hopes to generate an economic sphere that can compete with China.
“I think that the biggest problem with it was that we did not have the support at home to get it through,” US Trade Ambassador Katherine Tai said of the TPP, which was negotiated during the Obama presidency. “I think that there’s a very, very strong lesson there. That TPP as it was envisioned, ultimately, was something that was quite fragile, and that the United States was not able to deliver on and that informs very much our thinking about bringing the Indo-Pacific economic framework, as it’s designed here.”
It’s unclear whether IPEF will require Congressional approval; Tai said only “Let’s see where these negotiations take us” when asked if lawmakers would need to vote on the framework.
The Biden administration has worked hard to convince other countries to join — not only staunch partners like Japan and South Korea but smaller nations, particularly in Southeast Asia, who aren’t as closely aligned with the US.
The plan’s early detractors have suggested it lacks any incentives — like lowering tariffs — in return for joining up. Biden’s aides suggest there are other ways to facilitate more trade and market access, and that the framework itself provides an attractive opportunity for participating countries to work closely with the US. And if anything, Biden’s announcement Monday reflects just the beginning of the process for writing the plan.
Already, China has responded harshly to the framework, with a senior envoy calling it a “closed and exclusive clique.”
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One as Biden was traveling from South Korea to Japan, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the criticism was expected.
“It’s not a surprise to me that China has concerns about the number of countries, the diversity of countries who have expressed interest in and enthusiasm for IPEF,” he said. “It’s natural that they’re going to try to find ways to raise questions.”