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Talking Trade blog

IPEF: The party few wanted to attend


Published 23 May 2022

The United States just managed the diplomatic equivalent of holding a rather important party—announced months in advance—that almost no one wanted to attend. With the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) announcement , the United States had been hoping to get back into the business of working on economic relationships with key partners in Asia.

Unfortunately for the Americans, even good friends basically sent a text reading, “Yeah, we’ll think about dropping by.”  Others failed to show up for the party at all.

The final document, released by the White House, ran to just over a page.  It described the elements of the proposed framework, which include four pillars: connected economy, resilient economy, clean economy, and fair economy. Three pillars include activities that are a bit of a “pick and choose” while the last one is an “all or nothing.”

Only 12 governments (Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) have agreed to think about starting to discuss something in the future.

They are supposed to check back in with the hosts in a month or so to indicate exactly which pillars or activities they want to join over the next 12-18 months. (It remains unclear what happens if everyone wants to join just one or two activities and there are no obvious takers for the others.)

Why was this launch party such a disaster? 

In a nutshell, because the US was promising to hold a very dull event.  It was not just that the food and beverages were going to be either bland and uninteresting for some party goers or inedible for others.  The proposed music was not danceable. 

But much worse, the hosts have a series of activities planned for the party.  These activities were, in fact, mostly quite unpopular for the proposed guests.  The individual games or plans were largely built to suit the hosts without much consideration of the needs or interests of potential guests.

These activities are also set to continue long after the original launch party ends.  Some could, in fact, take years to wrap up.  Guests could be committed to regular gatherings for an indefinite amount of time.

While some of the activities have titles that are unobjectionable, others may be quite problematic.  The description of these events is so brief and so bland that almost any sort of outcome could be imagined.  There is no way to tell how involved any guest will have to be at any given time.  This sounds less like a fun party and a lot more like serious work with potentially limited rewards. It’s not clear what guests can do after the IPEF pillar activities are concluded that is not possible now.

The whole launch party was a bit of a “trust fall” experiment.  Guests were invited to stand on the tabletop and fall over backwards into the arms of the group, demonstrating trust in one another.  However, some of the potential guests have vivid memories and even lingering injuries from the last time the Americans invited guests to participate in trust falls over a trade agreement.  While a group of guests were in mid-air in January 2017, the United States simply turned and left the house entirely.  Guests were left to pick themselves off the floor and figure out how to move along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

Faced with an impending disaster and limited RSVPs for the IPEF launch party, the hosts did not try to woo friends with better food and beverages.  They did not change music or consider dropping some of the proposed agenda.

Instead, they spent time in the car (or the Air Force One equivalent) attempting to rewrite the invitation cards.  The language was softened even further to make it easier to promise to attend.  It really did not work.  Only a dozen showed up.

The proposed guest list included many with lots of other parties to attend.  Some have been underway for a long time and others are relatively new.  Some are large with diverse participants and others are much smaller affairs. 

The point is that these possible IPEF guests didn’t need to attend the American party.  They had an easy excuse for skipping the party or for ducking out early—to attend a different event. 

This is not to say that all these other trade and economic parties are a great deal of fun or that they deliver on promises every time.  There is certainly room for holding a different kind of party.

But any party that hopes to attract guests, especially given a crowded schedule and overlapping potential commitments, needs to provide clear reasons for attending.  Those reasons have to go beyond what the host wants to eat, drink, listen to or do.  It has to be responsive to possible guest interests.

It’s not enough to suggest that, once everyone arrives at the party, they can somehow change the menu, adjust the lighting, rearrange the furniture, and substitute or skip the games and activities. The host will continue to control much of the agenda and decide on acceptable or unacceptable outcomes.

The real shame is perhaps that many of the invited guests probably wanted to attend an American party.  Some have spent years waiting for the US to hold another one.  Others recognized an obligation to attend.   But faced with a party that could potentially stretch out in time for a very long time to come, most were simply unable to summon the strength to agree to think about it.

As IPEF is set to continue, it could be the case that more guests decide to join in the future.  Or not.  Either way, it is awfully hard to see the launch party as a rousing success. 

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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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