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What Asia doesn’t need from the US

Published 04 June 2024

In testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Head of Trade Policy Deborah Elms lays out the US need to strengthen its alliances in Asia.

[Transcript by Chuin Wei Yap]

The notion that Southeast Asia doesn’t want to choose between the US and China is inaccurate.

In testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which reports to Congress, our Head of Trade Policy Deborah Elms lays out what the dilemma really is:

“The consequences for their domestic economies (in Southeast Asia) are significant. If they are being asked to make a decision, what they are looking for is more information about why this choice is necessary – why it’s necessary for them, not why it’s necessary for the United States. That’s a challenge. And if there is anything offsetting that can be offered? Because the choice comes with real consequences.

“When the United States shows up and says, ‘You need to follow us because we’re right,’ and doesn’t do a whole lot afterward – there’s no market access, there’s no trade agreement – remember, economics in Asia rules. This is a very trade-dependent region.

“There are a lot of potential positives that could be used. I would go back to IPEF. The IPEF framework, I get it, it’s got to be different, okay I understand, for domestic reasons. But even then, the United States hasn’t shown up with much. Lots of conversation, lots of engagement, lots of meetings.

“Everyone expected they would sign IPEF in November in San Francisco, and it didn’t happen. Not only did it not happen, but in the end, we had leaders who got off an airplane in San Francisco and then discovered that the trade pillar in particular wasn’t even going to be on the agenda… This is catastrophic from the perspective of many leaders in Asia for whom this was a very big deal. For me, this was an own goal from the US.

“It doesn’t take much as a carrot to have the proper ceremony to acknowledge that people have come together as friends and partners… You’ve got to remember that you are asking your friends and allies in the region to do something that is difficult, and you are asking them to do it in exchange for, frankly, not a whole lot at the moment. And that’s a bargain that’s going to be hard to continue to deliver.”

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Dr. Deborah Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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