IPEF and its (wrong) premises

Alessandro Ponzetto | May 18th, 2022

As covered yesterday, we may finally know something more about the fabled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Even before the unveiling, there are some countries who are looking optimistic, like Japan and South Korea.

Personally, I’m much less optimistic given the circumstances. The reason is rather simple: it is based on the wrong premises, which inevitably result in wrong policies. To elaborate as to why I am of this opinion, it is time to thoroughly analyse the underlying strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

There are five objectives in the strategy:

·         Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific

·         Build connections within and beyond the region

·         Drive regional prosperity

·         Bolster Indo-Pacific security

·         Build regional resilience to transnational threats

On the surface, these objectives look reasonable enough. It takes little to see issues come to the surface, however. To show why, we will quote excerpts from each of these five points and comment along the way.

Advance a free and open Indo-Pacific

Our vital interests and those of our closest partners require a free and open Indo-Pacific, where governments can make their own sovereign choices, consistent with their obligations under international law; and where seas, skies, and other shared domains are lawfully governed.

The premise is reasonable, especially with regards to certain issues that are of interest. The best example in this regard is the South China Sea, which we previously covered in ‘Naval security in the Pacific’. Specifically, we mentioned Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Pham Minh Chinh, who proposed a cooperation between ASEAN and the US in order to ensure peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The fact that it came from Vietnam is of particular importance for what comes later.

Our strategy, therefore, begins with building resilience within countries, as we have done in the United States. In the region, that includes our efforts to support open societies and to ensure Indo-Pacific governments can make independent political choices free from coercion; we will do so through investments in democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society.

Here is the first catch: the Biden administration seems more interested in proselytising rather than understanding the other parties and tailoring its strategy accordingly. Vietnam is a clear example of this, as it is a communist country and subsequently would make any cooperation with this very important country difficult.

To be fair, the same can be said for democratic countries too, as we covered the several occasions in which US officials criticised India (something of a critical importance, given India’s inclusion into the Quad).

Here the stark difference in approach between the US military and State Department is laid bare: the former has fostered good cooperation with several countries in the region, either directly or through trusted allies, while the State Department has been less forthcoming. With regards to the free and open Indo-Pacific, the former is definitely much more important than the latter, and evidence to this can be seen with all the recent actions of the 7th Fleet in the region.

Build connections within and beyond the region

A free and open Indo-Pacific can only be achieved if we build collective capacity for a new age; common action is now a strategic necessity. The alliances, organizations, and rules that the United States and our partners have helped to build must be adapted; where needed, we must update them together. We will pursue this through a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions.

Once again, the premise is reasonable, but the following paragraphs show the issues lurking beneath the surface.

We will support and empower allies and partners as they take on regional leadership roles themselves, and we will work in flexible groupings that pool our collective strength to face up to the defining issues of our time, particularly through the Quad. We will continue to strengthen Quad cooperation on global health, climate change, critical and emerging technology, infrastructure, cyber, education, and clean energy, as we work together and with other partners toward a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Given the criticisms levied against India, a Quad member, and the US unwillingness to rejoin the CPTPP, which was kept together by Japan and Australia (the other two Quad members) this looks silly. Moreover, this shows problems with regards to priorities: not all countries have the same priorities as the US, and imposing them on others is rather condescending behaviour from Washington.

The United States also welcomes a strong and independent ASEAN that leads in Southeast Asia. We endorse ASEAN centrality and support ASEAN in its efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the region’s most pressing challenges.

There is also a monetary figure with regards to this pledge: $150 million. As reported by Reuters, President Joe Biden opened the ASEAN-US summit with a promise to spend $150 million on their infrastructure, security, pandemic preparedness and other efforts aimed at countering the influence of rival China.

Given this premise, it is a miracle ASEAN did not walk out from the summit, but then again there is much more to the US than Biden, as we have been seeing (and thankfully so, otherwise China would have walked all over ASEAN by this point).

Drive regional prosperity

The prosperity of everyday Americans is linked to the Indo-Pacific. We will put forward an innovative new framework to equip our economies for this moment. Our efforts are built on a strong foundation of close economic integration.

Here comes the fabled IPEF, which has been around for quite some time. The best details currently available are from early April, and we briefly covered it in Asia Pacific Macro – April 5:

There is very little else currently available, but whatever comes out from the US-Japan summit is unlikely to change its content as this announcement comes after the Indo Pacific Strategy.

Bolster Indo-Pacific security

This is effectively the only point in which the US has been somewhat consistent, with lapses like letting the Chinese build and fortify artificial islands across the South China Sea. Had Obama’s government (of which Biden was VP) stopped that, things would have been better for all the other concerned parties.

Integrated deterrence will be the cornerstone of our approach. We will more tightly integrate our efforts across warfighting domains and the spectrum of conflict to ensure that the United States, alongside our allies and partners, can dissuade or defeat aggression in any form or domain. We will drive initiatives that reinforce deterrence and counter coercion, such as opposing efforts to alter territorial boundaries or undermine the rights of sovereign nations at sea.

The best example of integration is in fact with Japan, as we have covered in recent articles covering the country. Then again, hard power can carry you so far, and we see this with the Philippines: Marcos Jr said his country’s relations with China will expand and shift to a higher gear under his administration, and Beijing had assured him of its support for his “independent foreign policy”.

This will make Biden’s visit to Japan very uncomfortable, for a very simple reason: Japan went above and beyond with regards to the Philippines, including signing a security deal in their first ever 2+2 meeting (see ‘The Rising Sun goes on tour’ for more), and their efforts may come for naught. Same goes for the US military, which has given overt signs of support to this historic ally.

The reason why this happened is rather simple: when DC is busy grandstanding instead of adapting to the environment, it is rather easy for the Chinese to take advantage of the situation.

Build regional resilience to transnational threats

This is all about climate change, an issue that several countries in ASEAN do not view as a priority. Rather, they see it as a luxury they cannot afford, unless financed by those who do (namely the US).

The Indo-Pacific is the epicenter of the climate crisis, but it is also essential to climate solutions. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will require the major economies in the region to align their targets with the Agreement’s temperature goals.

Then of course there is the elephant in the room: China.

This includes urging the PRC to commit to and implement actions in line with the level of ambition required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As we have seen, there is little to no evidence with regards to China actually caring about what the West thinks it’s appropriate, in all sorts of fields. There is little to no reason to believe that China will actually care this time around, notwithstanding the unintended consequence of improving the environment through Zero Covid.

Conclusion

The White House also provided an Action Plan, but it is more of the same, so we skip to the conclusions. The following paragraph is the most important:

The Indo-Pacific’s future depends on the choices we make now. The decisive decade before us will determine if the region can confront and address climate change, reveal how the world rebuilds from a once-in-a-century pandemic, and decide whether we can sustain the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusivity that have fueled the region’s success. If, together with our partners, we can reinforce the region for 21st-century challenges and seize its opportunities, the Indo-Pacific will thrive, bolstering the United States and the world.

The first phrase is actually correct, and has been proven correct: many developments have come as a result of choices the US made in the past, and this renders this current strategy more of a farce. The lack of understanding of key players in the region, coupled with the unwillingness to adapt, has rendered the US ineffective on several fronts.

Most likely, this will transpire on May 23 as well, unless the Japanese take the driver seat and merely ask Uncle Sam to pay up. Actually, that could very well be the best possible arrangement, given the current set of circumstances.

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