TOKYO: As the United States works on a new Indo-Pacific initiative to fill the economic void left by its exit from the former Trans - Pacific Partnership, countries worried about the widening rift between Washington and China are counting on Japan to help steer the effort.


Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai embarked on Asian tours in November to sell the planned " Indo - Pacific economic framework ".


Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid groundwork as well during his visit to Southeast Asia this month, though he cut the trip short when a journalist in his delegation tested positive for COVID-19.


The effort is largely a response to China. It aims to make supply chains less reliant on the country, while tightening oversight of exports to avoid leaks of critical technology.


The framework would also cover common rules for data and artificial intelligence, as well as promote cooperation on infrastructure, an area where Beijing has moved aggressively.


Commerce Secretary Raimondo said the new framework would not be a traditional trade agreement, but the details are unclear, for example as to whether the agreement would be legally binding or not.


" The idea really hasn't been fully thought through, " a Japanese government insider said.


The United States rush to put something on the table comes as China gains ground in the international trade arena, in developments that threaten to reshape the region's economic order in Washington's absence.


China has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans - Pacific Partnership, followed closely by Taiwan. More recently, South Korea said it will begin the process to join the pact.


The 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is set to take effect in January for most countries involved.


The Biden administration has been under pressure to respond somehow, and given the deep suspicion toward trade agreements in much of the US, conceived the Indo-Pacific framework which excludes traditional market -opening negotiations.


There are no real new ideas to be found in the plan.


The Quad - the security grouping consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia - is already working to shore up supply chains for semiconductors and other products, and there have been multiple moves to create shared digital rules for the region such as the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement concluded between Singapore, Chile and New Zealand.


In infrastructure, the Group of Seven in June agreed to work together on the US-proposed Build Back Better World initiative, a counterweight to China's Belt and Road.


The purpose of Washington's new framework is essentially to bundle various regional initiatives together and expand them throughout the Indo-Pacific.


Yet many countries are not keen on being forced to pick a side between the United States and China. Overly tight oversight on exports of advanced technology, for example, would hurt countries that trade heavily with China.


Asian trade officials say they expect to see Japan Country play a coordinating role. The hope is that Tokyo would steer the effort away from unnecessary decoupling from China, such as by narrowing the scope of export screenings.


In the early days of TPP negotiations, the prospect of increased access for exports to the US market encouraged many countries to participate. A similar carrot will be needed for this new effort.


During her trip to Malaysia, Raimondo visited a semiconductor factory that had at one point shut down due to the pandemic, and announced a plan to collaborate on supply chain security and resilience.


Asian countries will welcome this if it means more outside investment.


The same goes for infrastructure. In telecommunications, for example, less-affluent countries buy inexpensive Chinese equipment despite fears of data leaking to Beijing.


Providing support for construction of secure infrastructure would boost the appeal of the new framework.


There are some sceptics. Scott Miller, a former State Department adviser on international economic policy now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questions how much a framework that would not require even legislative approval could do.


" What American firms and farmers and workers really care about is market access, and nobody is trying to achieve better market access for American export," Millar said.


Tetsuya Watababe, vice-president at Japan's Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, argues that United States engagement in Asia is beneficial in and of itself.


" Japan should take every opportunity it can to boost United States presence in Asia. Maintaining the balance with China is key to regional stability and therefore should be our consistent policy goal," he said.


Beijing is taking a wait - and - see stance for now. But Song Guoyou, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at China's Fudan University, mocked the effort in an English - language commentary for the state - backed Global Times.


" When the United States pitches an economic initiative, it always uses language and spin to persuade regional countries, but it always (falls) short in actual investment," Song said.


With midterm elections coming up next November, the Biden administration is scrambling to deliver results to voters. Tokyo will have little choice but to respond to Washington's actions.











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