Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (left) at the signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 15, 2020, for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Photo: AFP

During his recent five-day trip to Asia, US President Joe Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a 12-country initiative that will seek regulatory alignment. The aim is to deepen economic engagement across four pillars – connected economy (data, labor, and environmental standards), resilient economy (supply chains), clean economy (decarbonization), and fair economy (tax and anti-money-laundering).

This initiative is a weak alternative to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which was launched in January. This is because RCEP offers countries access to one another’s markets whereas IPEF does not.

The largest carrot the US could dangle in front of prevaricating countries to persuade them to join an American-led world order is by offering them access to its market. Yet the toxic state of America’s domestic politics prevents this. And this is not just going to affect the eventual success of IPEF, but a whole host of other American plans and commitments across the globe.

That IPEF does not offer member countries access to America’s market is no surprise. American protectionism is self-defeating. The fact that there is bipartisan consensus over it does not suggest that the issue has been thought through.

Biden’s Democrats are petrified of a resurgent Donald Trump using free trade as a political cudgel against the ruling party. The Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” bill, which did not get congressional approval, incensed Canadian policymakers because its provisions would harm Canada’s electric-vehicle manufacturing industry. The bill was eventually torpedoed by a senator from Biden’s own party.

Yet the saga demonstrated how an American foreign policy hobbled by its toxic politics could not make exceptions for one of the country’s closest allies. This thinking also colors IPEF; it merely states the intention to begin negotiations on aligning regulatory standards. It does not offer market access in the manner that RCEP does.  

Except for the US, India and Fiji, all members of IPEF are also members of RCEP. This suggests that even some of America’s allies are hedging between America on the one hand and the China-Russia axis on the other. The US-South Korea joint statement released at the end of Biden’s trip to Seoul did not once mention China, likely because of South Korea’s desire not to offend its largest trading partner.

One of the main reasons that the world’s countries are hedging between the US and China is that America is unlikely to be a reliable ally no matter who occupies the White House. Indeed, while Trump may have walked the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Joe Biden’s foreign policy has not been a study in reliability either.

Indeed, only a few months ago, the French foreign minister denounced what he called “a stab in the back” by the US on the AUKUS deal.  

On Russia, there is little guarantee that the current White House policy will hold should Trump regain the presidency in 2024; Trump has already called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “genius” move.

On the Iran nuclear deal too, the sticking point seems to be Tehran’s insistence that Washington removes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, on which it was placed by the Trump administration, despite advice at the time from US military officials that it would be a counterproductive move.

In the face of a likely shellacking for his Democratic Party in midterm elections this November, the Biden administration has demurred on the FTO issue. The delay in concluding the nuclear deal has led to a situation where, even if a nuclear deal were to be concluded, Iran is within striking distance of a nuclear bomb.

This explains why proxy warfare via drones between Iran and Israel has escalated in the past few months and is likely to continue, deal or no deal.

The US today is a prime example of how democracies devour themselves. Ostensibly independent institutions like the judiciary are now thoroughly politicized. The country’s political gridlock has prevented meaningful action on domestic issues like gun control and immigration, while politics remains animated by the never-ending culture wars over racism, LGBTQ issues, and abortion.

Foreign policy too suffers as the US Senate has yet to confirm many important ambassadorial positions. It is telling that there are still no confirmed ambassadors for India and ASEAN, which are meant to be in IPEF (India is also a Quad member).

There is little coherence in an American foreign policy that sanctions Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for human-rights abuses but refuses to sanction Israeli security forces for its actions, such as the killing of a Palestinian-American American journalist this month.

America’s Build Back Better World program to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative has gone nowhere, while the American-brokered “historic” global tax deal on multinationals has been delayed until 2024, likely because of opposition in the US Congress.

Because the US continues to have such an outsized influence on the world, its incoherence is making the world a less safe and less prosperous place. Despite the IPEF announcement, America’s closest friends and allies are right to hedge and plan accordingly.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Dnyanesh Kamat

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.