US President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman participate in the US-ASEAN Special Summit at the US Department of State in Washington on May 13, 2022. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / US State Department / Freddie Everett

HANOI – As President Joe Biden arrives in Asia for his first presidential visit, we applaud his personal commitment to the region.

Following the first-ever meeting of ASEAN leaders held in Washington, DC, a strong and needed message has been sent of the importance of the Asia-Pacific region to US national interest, even in times of global crisis elsewhere.

The US looks to continue that positive momentum with its announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which has many elements of great interest in the region, including on digital trade.

Sure, we could take a glass half-empty perspective by discussing what it does not include – the US joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Nothing would do more for the US economic and national security interests in the region.

Given the political reality that there are few champions for trade right now, we commend the administration for trying something new and different.

It is fortuitous we are holding the annual meeting of the AmChams of Asia-Pacific in ASEAN in general and in Hanoi in particular.

Given its importance to both the United States and China, and that the countries within want strong relations with both, Southeast Asia might be the area with the greatest level playing field in the competition between the world’s two greatest powers. 

Besides being on its home turf, China has further advantages since entering the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which further integrates it into the economies of the region. 

Now, China intends to join the CPTPP as well.

The RCEP being ratified and coming into force within a year tells of the region’s desire for greater trade and investment connectivity and highlights the challenges facing those who do not share that desire.

With the US having no plans to join RCEP or CPTPP, it must find other ways to compete.

As described by a senior administration official, the US can upgrade its relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by meeting ASEAN where its interests meet US interests, such as on health and Covid-19 support, disaster preparedness, maritime domain awareness and investment in green energy.

The US business community will do its part to make those initiatives a success.

Still, the United States must find a way to engage in trade as well.

It has been 10 years since the US entered a new trade agreement in the region, the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement. 

The best way to get back to the table as the region’s trade architecture gets drafted is for the US to negotiate and enter into a digital trade agreement with as many partners as possible. 

The post-pandemic economy will be digitally driven, and this is where rules that promote openness, interoperability and non-discrimination in the digital economy will really make a difference.

Such an agreement would address the obstacles to doing business today, such as having one set of rules for e-signatures, cross-border rules on privacy, recognition of electronic transactions and records and no data localization requirements. 

A digital agreement does not just focus on the tech sector but about everything we do in life these days, from online shopping of goods to the purchase of services, education, and travel.  Digital is not just a sub segment of the economy – it is the entire economy.

Such an agreement would benefit US SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and open markets to them that they could not otherwise afford to serve. It would bring traditionally marginalized populations in the US – women, minorities, rural communities – into the global marketplace through digital trade.

The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework must champion a set of high-quality digital trade rules to set the foundation for an Internet economy that is free and open, as opposed to other models in the region. 

Nothing prevents a digital agreement from being an “early harvest” of the soon-to-be-announced Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Indeed, this should be a goal the administration sets to achieve by the time it hosts APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) next year. It gets the US into the game while bringing economic benefits to US workers and businesses.

The administration deserves credit for trying something new and different to increase US engagement in the region overall, particularly with ASEAN.

Living and working in the Asia-Pacific, we know the US increasing its trade engagement would mitigate the challenges and increase the opportunities when it comes to the US national interest. We also recognize the constraints facing the Biden administration when it comes to trade policy.   

I know I speak for the many of the members of American Chambers of Commerce in that we should think creatively about how we can both educate what is happening on the ground while addressing the concerns various US stakeholders have about trade policy to find a path forward together. 

Steven R Okun is chief executive of APAC Advisors and senior adviser to McLarty Associates, based in Singapore. He also serves as chairman of the AmChams of Asia Pacific, the umbrella organization of 25 American Chambers of Commerce across the region.