A dozen countries have now joined with the United States to launch a new economic initiative known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF). The governments of Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are all “initial partners” in this American-led initiative—widely understood as an attempt to counter China’s influence in a part of the world where, as U.S. President Joe Biden put it, “the future of the 21st-century economy is going to be largely written.”

Biden announced the framework in Tokyo on May 23, during his first trip to Asia since taking office, saying the participating states would write new economic rules to “help all of our countries’ economies grow faster and fairer.” (The White House subsequently confirmed that a fourteenth country, Fiji, would also join.) Yet, speaking for skeptics, David Adelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President Barack Obama, said there’s “no teeth” to the new effort—and a lot remains uncertain, not least in the region, about the specific commitments and outcomes the IPEF will produce over the coming months and years. What can we understand about it now?

Wendy Cutler is the vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former a diplomat and negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where she was a senior negotiator on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the abandoned trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration. Cutler sees a wide range of possibilities for this new endeavor at the outset; it could coalesce into a large, meaningful initiative or splinter into smaller efforts of lesser significance. In her telling, part of the uncertainty comes not just from a current lack of details about the IPEF—to be worked out over a lengthy period of negotiation—but from questions about who will shape those details and whether the U.S., with its polarized domestic politics, will even remain committed to the framework. Cutler says the United States will have a special challenge on its hands, holding together such an unconventional foreign policy while navigating the likelihood of intensified Chinese economic engagement in Indo-Pacific Asia.

Graham Vyse: What’s been driving the U.S. to create the IPEF?

Wendy Cutler: The Biden administration wanted to focus on the Indo-Pacific region early on. It’s a dynamic, growing region, where a lot of innovation is happening. But as the administration was stepping up its engagement there, its partners were saying, You’re doing a lot on the security front, but your approach to economics is weak. Many of America’s trading partners would prefer that the U.S. return to the TPP, but the Biden administration isn’t interested in that, so the administration developed something new.

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