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‘Difficult to believe’: Biden’s economy plan a tough sell in Asia – Al Jazeera English

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Phnom Penh, Cambodia – US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Seoul on Friday marks not only the start of his first visit while in office to South Korea and Japan, but the beginnings of an economic initiative aimed at deepening United States ties across Asia.

Though many of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’s details have yet to be finalised, the Biden administration has made one point clear – the plan is not a traditional trade agreement that will lower tariffs or otherwise open access to US markets, but a partnership for promoting common economic standards.

While many of China’s regional neighbours share Washington’s concerns about the burgeoning superpower’s ambitions, the IPEF’s lack of clear trade provisions could make it an uninspiring prospect for potential members, especially in Southeast Asia.

“You can sense the frustration for developing, trade-reliant countries,” Calvin Cheng, a senior analyst of economics, trade and regional integration at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera. “There’s always talk about engaging Asia, the idea, but what exactly is it – and what are the incentives for developing countries to take up standards that are being imposed on them by richer, developed countries?”

Since announcing the IPEF in October, the Biden administration has characterised the initiative as a way of promoting common standards under the pillars of fair and resilient trade; supply chain resilience; infrastructure, clean energy, and decarbonisation; and tax and anti-corruption.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House in February describes the framework as part of a wider push to “restore American leadership” in the region by engaging with partners there to “meet urgent challenges, from competition with China to climate change to the pandemic”.

Nevertheless, Biden’s decision not to pursue a major trade deal harks back to the protectionist leanings of former US President Donald Trump, and, in particular, his administration’s abrupt pullout from the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Trump, whose antipathy towards traditional alliances sparked anxiety in many Asian countries, scuttled that agreement in 2017 despite sharing the deal’s aims of countering expanding Chinese economic influence.

Yoon Suk-yeol
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has expressed support for Biden’s new economic initiative [File: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg]

But even without clear benefits to boost trade, Asian leaders have, for the most part, reacted favourably to the prospect of renewed US engagement in Asia.

Longtime allies Japan and South Korea are expected to be among the first to engage with the IPEF, as are Singapore and the Philippines.

From Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said at the recent US-ASEAN summit that Vietnam “would like to work with the US to realise the four pillars of that initiative”.

However, he added that Vietnam needed more time to study the framework, as well as to see more “concrete details”.

Thailand has also demonstrated interest, while leaders in Indonesia and India have yet to take a clear position.

Huynh Tam Sang, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, said Hanoi wished to avoid antagonising either the US or China – a common position for Southeast Asian states attempting to stay clear of great power struggles while avoiding being dominated by their northern neighbour.

“The Vietnamese government has been rather prudent not to showcase any intentions to join the IPEF or not, though I think there are many benefits to joining,” Sang told Al Jazeera, listing clean energy and reliable supply chains as common interests.

Sang said, however, that other standards, such as those related to taxes and anti-corruption efforts, could be a step too far for the Vietnamese government.

“I think Vietnam could be really reluctant to join that pillar for fear of the US intervening in Vietnam’s domestic politics,” he said.

“The anti-corruption campaign is definitely going on, but many Vietnamese are very sceptical of this view of cooperation, especially with the US when the Biden administration has prioritised democratic values when fostering ties with regional countries.”

Strings attached

Such concerns could undercut the renewed US engagement, particularly when China has made a point to engage in trade without such values-based strings attached. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that went into effect at the start of this year, is a testament to that hands-off approach to some observers.

China played a key role in negotiating the RCEP, which also includes Japan and South Korea, plus all 10 of the ASEAN member-states –  Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – as well as Australia and New Zealand.

In total, the RCEP covers some 2.3 billion people and an estimated 30 percent of the global economy. The partnership is widely seen as being more focused on promoting trade by removing tariffs and red tape, with a less holistic approach to raising economic standards than the TPP or its successor, the reassembled Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Cheng described the CPTPP, of which the US is not a member, as the “gold standard” for trade deals in the region, noting its commitment to expanded trade access as well as provisions to safeguard labour rights, promote transparency and address environmental issues and climate change.

“So the IPEF is pretty much that, but taking out the trade deal aspect of it, leaving just the standards,” he said.

It remains to be seen how far the standards-only method will go in terms of winning acceptance across Asia.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has called on the United States to take a more comprehensive approach to trade [File: Samsul Said/Bloomberg] (Bloomberg)

Already, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and international trade minister Azmin Ali have said the US should take a more comprehensive approach.

Ali described the framework proposal in an interview with Reuters as a “good beginning for us to engage on various issues” and said Malaysia would decide which IPEF pillars it would consider joining. At the same time, he made clear the IPEF was not a replacement for the more-comprehensive TPP.

Some of the most straightforward public criticism of the new framework on that front has come from prominent former ministers in Japan, one of the region’s most steadfast US allies.

Earlier this month, former foreign minister Taro Kono and former justice minister Takashi Yamashita spoke at an event in Washington of the new framework’s lack of hard commitments, an aspect they found glaring in the context of the abrupt collapse of the TPP. In their comments, the two maintained the IPEF would only serve to undermine the CPTPP.

“Now the Biden administration is talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic whatever, I would say forget about it,” Kono said.

Hiroaki Watanabe, a professor of international relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, said the US withdrawal from the TPP had undermined Japanese perceptions of the IPEF’s stability. Though Biden may promote his framework while in power, Watanabe said, there was no guarantee the next president would.

“Right now, it’s the Biden administration, but we don’t know what will come next – it could even be Trump again,” Watanabe told Al Jazeera.

“From a non-American perspective, it’s really difficult to believe what America is saying when it says it wants to commit itself to these plans,”  Watanabe added. “There are many challenges to the logistics of this, and then the US may just throw away the kind of commitment as measured by the IPEF in the future. Practically, it’s not meaningless, but it’s not significant either.”

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China’s Central Bank Cuts Key Short-Term Rate to Buoy Economy – Bloomberg

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China’s Central Bank Cuts Key Short-Term Rate to Buoy Economy  Bloomberg

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Here is Trump economy: Slower growth, higher prices and a bigger national debt

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If Donald Trump is re-elected president of the United States in November, Americans can expect higher inflation, slower economic growth and a larger national debt, according to economists.

Trump’s economic agenda for a second term in office includes raising tariffs on imports, cutting taxes and deporting millions of undocumented migrants.

“Inflation will be the main impact” of a second Trump presidency, Bernard Yaros, lead US economist at Oxford Economics, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s ultimately the biggest risk. If Trump is president, tariffs are going up for sure. The question is how high do they go and how widespread are they,” Yaros said.

Trump has proposed imposing a 10 percent across-the-board tariff on all imported goods and levies of 60 percent or higher on Chinese imports.

During Trump’s first term in office from 2017 to 2021, his administration introduced tariff increases that at their peak affected about 10 percent of imports, mostly goods from China, Moody’s Analytics said in a report released in June.

Those levies nonetheless inflicted “measurable economic damage”, particularly to the agriculture, manufacturing and transportation sectors, according to the report.

“A tariff increase covering nearly all goods imports, as Trump recently proposed, goes far beyond any previous action,” Moody’s Analytics said in its report.

Businesses typically pass higher tariffs on to their customers, raising prices for consumers. They could also affect businesses’ decisions about how and where to invest.

“There are three main tenets of Trump’s campaign, and they all point in the same inflationary direction,” Matt Colyar, assistant director at Moody’s Analytics, told Al Jazeera.

“We didn’t even think of including retaliatory tariffs in our modelling because who knows how widespread and what form the tit-for-tat model could involve,” Colyar added.

‘Recession becomes a serious threat’

When the US opened its borders after the COVID-19 pandemic, the inflow of immigrants helped to ease labour shortages in a range of industries such as construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality.

The recovery of the labour market in turn helped to bring down inflation from its mid-2022 peak of 9.1 percent.

Trump has not only proposed the mass deportation of 15 million to 20 million undocumented migrants but also restricting the inflow of visa-holding migrant workers too.

That, along with a wave of retiring Baby Boomers – an estimated 10,000 of whom are exiting the workforce every day – would put pressure on wages as it did during the pandemic, a trend that only recently started to ease.

“We can assume he will throw enough sand into the gears of the immigration process so you have meaningfully less immigration, which is inflationary,” Yaros said.

Since labour costs and inflation are two important measures that the US Federal Reserve weighs when setting its benchmark interest rate, the central bank could announce further rate hikes, or at least wait longer to cut rates.

That would make recession a “serious threat once again”, according to Moody’s.

Adding to those inflationary concerns are Trump’s proposals to extend his 2017 tax cuts and further lower the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 20 percent.

While Trump’s proposed tariff hikes would offset some lost revenue, they would not make up the shortfall entirely.

According to Moody’s, the US government would generate $1.7 trillion in revenue from Trump’s tariffs while his tax cuts would cost $3.4 trillion.

Yaros said government spending is also likely to rise as Republicans seek bigger defence budgets and Democrats push for greater social expenditures, further stoking inflation.

If President Joe Biden is re-elected, economists expect no philosophical change in his approach to import taxes. They think he will continue to use targeted tariff increases, much like the recently announced 100 percent tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles and solar panels, to help US companies compete with government-supported Chinese firms.

With Trump’s tax cuts set to expire in 2025, a second Biden term would see some of those cuts extended, but not all, Colyar said. Primarily, the tax cuts to higher earners like those making more than $400,000 a year would expire.

Although Biden has said he would hike corporate taxes from 21 percent to 28 percent, given the divided Congress, it is unlikely he would be able to push that through.

The contrasting economic visions of the two presidential candidates have created unwelcome uncertainty for businesses, Colyar said.

“Firms and investors are having a hard time staying on top of [their plans] given the two different ways the US elections could go,” Colyar said.

“In my entire tenure, geopolitical risk has never been such an important consideration as it is today,” he added.

 

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China Stainless Steel Mogul Fights to Avoid a Second Collapse

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Chinese metal tycoon Dai Guofang’s first steel empire was brought down by a government campaign to rein in market exuberance, tax evasion accusations and a spell behind bars. Two decades on, he’s once again fighting for survival.

A one-time scrap-metal collector, he built and rebuilt a fortune as China boomed. Now with the economy cooling, Dai faces a debt crisis that threatens the future of one of the world’s top stainless steel producers, Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry Co., along with plants held by his wife and son. Its demise would send ripples through the country’s vast manufacturing sector and the embattled global nickel market.

 

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