Trade, Mission Creep, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework

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President Biden announced this week a major economic agreement with a dozen countries in the Indo-Pacific region, to be called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Its goal is to provide a larger diplomatic and economic counterweight to China and increase America’s presence in Asia.

At first glance, it seems like an odd move. President Obama had already negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with many of the same countries in IPEF. President Trump pulled out of the TPP when he took office, but all the other member countries continued on without U.S. involvement under the renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Negotiating costs for rejoining TPP/CPTPP would likely be minimal, while the economic benefits of more open trading relationships will help offset America’s high monetary inflation. As a political bonus, President Biden would be undoing a major part of the Trump trade agenda. So why is Biden starting with a new agreement from scratch? I argue that it’s part of a long-term evolution in how governments are treating trade policy.

One difference is that IPEF has a different regional focus. The TPP/CPTPP focuses on the Pacific Rim, so it has members in South and Central America, not just Asia. IPEF focuses on China’s neighbors, most significantly India. America is IPEF’s only non-Asian member. So, the different diplomatic focus explains part of it.

Another factor for choosing IPEF over rejoining TPP/CPTPP is political: It will not require Senate confirmation. That is a large hurdle at any time, but with Republicans likely to take over the Senate, they would be unlikely to give President Biden a victory, despite their sharing a protectionist trade outlook.

But the broader reason, about which I am more concerned, may be mission creep. I will hold off on further judgments on IPEF until more details become public, but the point about trade policy’s loss of focus on trade is important enough to discuss now.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in 1994, was accompanied by side agreements on non-trade issues, specifically environment and labor. This was a first for major trade agreements. Those side agreements are why CEI originally opposed NAFTA. Our analysts at the time favored the free trade parts of the bill, but they did not like the precedent set by the trade-unrelated side agreements. They had a point. In the years that followed, trade-unrelated issues took on greater prominence in new agreements, and their page lengths ballooned accordingly.

By the time President Trump replaced NAFTA with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), NAFTA’s non-trade side agreements were folded into the main agreement, which is now more than 2,000 pages long. During the Obama era, trade agreements began to lose the word “free” from their names. President Trump took it even further. As I pointed out at the time, “USMCA’s name does not contain the words ‘free’ or ‘trade.’ This is symbolism, but also important.”

It also accurately reflected the contents. This shift in emphasis is why Iain Murray and I came out against USMCA. We liked that it would mostly preserve NAFTA’s zero-tariff relationships with Mexico and Canada, but those were already in place, and all the new trade-unrelated provisions meant more net burdens and more opportunities for cronyism.

IPEF represents the next logical step in that process. Again, details to come. But the administration’s early remarks make it seem that rejoining TPP is not on the agenda and that IPEF will have little to do with trade. At least TPP treated trade relations seriously. USMCA’s bad precedent has likely borne bad fruit.

We’ll soon see what IPEF contains. But if it is a multi-issue thicket of ideological wish list items and special favors for politically connected interest groups, its member countries may end up bickering about small provisions when they should be cooperating on the big picture of building together a counterweight to China.