As production is moved to ever more distant locales, with ever lower labor and environmental standards, the corporations behind these moves want all barriers to the movement of raw materials and finished products removed. Thus the era of so-called “free trade” agreements. These agreements, which are written to elevate corporations to the level of national governments (and in practice, actually above governments), have become so unpopular thanks to the efforts of grassroots activists to expose them to public scrutiny that governments have become cautious about embracing new ones.
How to get around this impasse? The U.S. government has evidently believed it has found a solution: Claim a “free trade” agreement is not a “free trade” agreement. Not only as an attempt to avoid public scrutiny but to totally bypass Congress.
This latest offensive on behalf of multi-national corporations is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because the Biden administration, which has cooked up this scheme, would much prefer you didn’t. So far, the 13 other governments that have entered negotiations, including Australia, India, Japan and New Zealand, aren’t eager for their own citizens to know about it, either, and have agreed, whether explicitly or tacitly, to keeping quiet.
Make no mistake, however. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a straightforward initiative to deepen U.S. domination in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Activists across those regions have taken notice and have already spoken out against the IPEF. Interestingly, some of the governments of those countries, in particular Australia and New Zealand, are quite open in acknowledging the IPEF is a U.S. initiative designed to keep them firmly under the U.S. umbrella and away from China — and are supporting this in their limited public statements. So those social-movement groups sounding alarms are on firm ground, to which we will return below.
So what is this “free trade” deal that is allegedly not a “free trade” deal? A White House “fact sheet” issued by the Biden administration in May 2022, upon the announcement of the IPEF at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meeting in Tokyo, declared that the “IPEF will enable the United States and our allies to decide on rules of the road that ensure American workers, small businesses, and ranchers can compete in the Indo-Pacific.” And how might this stated goal be achieved? Negotiations are to focus on “four key pillars to establish high-standard commitments that will deepen our economic engagement in the region.”
Those four pillars announced by the Biden administration are a “connected economy” that will harmonize standards on cross-border data flows and data localization; a “resilient economy” that seeks to “better anticipate and prevent disruptions in supply chains … [and] guard against price spikes that increase costs for American families”; a “clean economy” that “will seek first-of-their-kind commitments on clean energy, decarbonization, and infrastructure that promote good-paying jobs”; and a “fair economy” under which “tax, anti-money laundering, and anti-bribery” standards are used “to promote a fair economy. “
The same lies packaged for new consumption
Does this list sound familiar? Perhaps it does, as these are the sort of goals repeatedly promised in “free trade” agreements of the past, goals that never materialize because the draconian rules designed to unilaterally overturn health, safety, labor and environmental regulations always have words like “must” and “shall” attached to them in trade agreement texts, but any language purporting to safeguard such standards use words like “may” and “can.” And as disputes are settled in secret tribunals in which the lawyers who represent corporations against governments in these tribunals on one day switch hats and sit as judges on another day, the interpretation of what appears to be dry, technical, neutral-sounding language almost invariably is adjudicated in favor of the complaining corporation, without any appeal being possible.
Attempting to sidestep this history, the U.S. government is trying to claim the IPEF is not a trade deal at all, and thus can be approved by the White House unilaterally with no input by Congress. The Biden administration asserts that IPEF talks do not cover tariff liberalization or provisions that would require changes to key U.S. laws that Congress would have to approve and therefore has no intention of submitting the agreement for approval. Senators disagree, with 21 members of the Senate’s Finance Committee, including its Democratic (Ron Wyden of Oregon) and Republican (Mike Crapo of Idaho) leaders, sending the White House a letter telling the administration it must submit IPEF to Congress for approval.
Washington is far from the only seat of government slapping happy faces on this subterfuge. Let’s start our survey with Australia and New Zealand, where the governments seem quite pleased at this opportunity to be sidekicks to U.S. imperial designs. And perhaps believe a sub-imperialist slice of the action could come their way given there are several developing countries taking part in negotiations. The full list of countries taking part in IPEF talks are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam, although India is taking part in only some of the “pillars.”
The Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims that the IPEF “Supports the promotion of clean energy technologies and renewables to help address climate change impacts and the region’s energy transition” and will “accelerate growth in the digital economy, unlock green trade and investment opportunities, and improve labour and environment standards across the region.” The department also said the IPEF “Improves regional trade and investment conditions.” Unfortunately, Canberra does not specify how the IPEF will miraculously bring about those results, and any text circulating or positions taken in negotiations are unknown because the entire process is being kept secret from the public and legislators.
That the IPEF is a back-door attempt to resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership was broadly hinted in December 2022, when Foreign Minister Penny Wong “praised Washington’s commitment to Indo-Pacific security but said its departure from a regional trade pact was still being felt and that enhanced U.S. economic engagement with the region should be a priority,” according to a Reuters report.
Corporate interests already lining up in support
A clue to who will benefit comes courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which claims to be an “independent, non-partisan think tank” despite being established by the government, receiving some of its funding from the Australian military and says it reflects the opinions of Australian government officials and industry leaders. A report the Institute published is, like corporate interests in general, favorable toward the proposed pact. “The IPEF is viewed as a potentially innovative way to boost regional investment rather than as a mechanism to strengthen the usual substance of trade agreements, such as market access into the US,” the report said. This corporate vision appears to be to position Australia as a regional assistant to U.S. corporations. The report’s first recommendation: “The US, as the convener of the IPEF, should lean into Australia’s capacity-building expertise in the region” because “Australia has a long history of organising capacity building and training exercises in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.” In other words, Australia should position itself firmer as a junior imperialist country.
Canberra has been a good pupil, if you want to look at it that way, as symbolized in its decision earlier this year to spend up to $368 billion to buy nuclear submarines from the United States after the U.S. strong-armed the Australian government to cancel a previous cheaper deal to buy conventional submarines from France. The deal also will have U.S. and British submarines stationed on Australia’s Indian Ocean coast.
Much the same comes from Wellington. The New Zealand Foreign Affairs & Trade Ministry has declared, “The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity is an opportunity to strengthen economic cooperation with the United States and across our wider home region. The IPEF will provide an open and inclusive platform for the US to engage more deeply in the economic architecture of the Indo-Pacific, which we think is valuable for both New Zealand and the wider region.” Considering that when the Trans-Pacific Partnership was being negotiated, a key initiative for the United States was to weaken New Zealand’s health care system, it is reasonable to wonder why again negotiating a surrender to U.S. corporate interests would be a good idea.
U.S. government negotiators, on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry and its obscene profits, took direct aim at New Zealand’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency program that makes thousands of medicines, medical devices and related products available at subsidized costs in Trans-Pacific talks. The agency’s cutting down the industry’s exorbitant profit-gouging was openly called by the U.S. corporate lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America an “egregious example” to be eliminated because of its “focus on driving down costs.” Can New Zealand expect anything better this time?
Other participating governments have issued similar statements, with South Korea Trade Minister Ahn Duk-geun stating that “creating practical outcomes in areas like supply chain and clean energy is imperative.” Malaysian Trade Minister Mohamed Azmin Ali, discussing the supply chain talks, said “Malaysia believes that it is crucial to outline the tangible benefits of this trade and multilateral economic framework.”
With eyes open, grassroots opposition has already begun
Activist groups across the region and around the Pacific Ocean have already begun organizing opposition. This is a drill, after all, that groups organizing in opposition to always one-sided “free trade” agreements have had to repeatedly conduct.
A strong voice of opposition is that of Jane Kelsey, the University of Auckland law professor who long sounded the alarm on the Trans-Pacific Partnership from New Zealand.
Once again taking up the challenge, Professor Kelsey, in a May 2022 article in The Conversation, wrote, “[D]espite the high-profile launch, the IPEF remains an enigma, a high-level idea in search of substance.” She questions why the Australia and New Zealand governments are in these talks at all. “Realistically, the IPEF is a ‘pig in a poke’. Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia need to take a deep breath and realistically assess the opportunities and threats from such an arrangement. … Then they must weigh up the options: stand aside from the negotiations, pursue alternative arrangements, or establish a clear, public negotiating mandate that would truly maximise the nations’ interests for the century ahead.”
That commentary was written at the time of the IPEF’s creation. More recently, in December 2022, Professor Kelsey wrote more forcefully on the imperial nature of this trade deal, intended to reinforce U.S. dominance. Note that, in the U.S. government’s “fact sheet” quoted above that the purpose is to “ensure American workers, small businesses, and ranchers can compete in the Indo-Pacific.” Not even a pretense that working people in the other 13 negotiating countries might benefit. Writing in Bilaterals.org, Professor Kelsey said:
“It is extraordinary how quickly states across ‘the region’ (whatever we name it) have fallen into line. Old imperial powers have embraced the US’s re-assertion of its regional presence: Australia, with its increasingly strident anti-China stance; Canada, welcoming a new hybridised North-South version of the old Western hegemony; France, wary of its remaining colonies being seduced by China. … Predictably, New Zealand has also fallen into line.”
What we have here is a replay of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the TPP agenda of dismantling national protections against the depredations of U.S. multi-national capital. Professor Kelsey wrote:
“Barack Obama famously and unsuccessfully tried to sell the TPPA to the American people, and the US Congress, as the vehicle for America to write the rules and call the shots in the 21st century, not China. Those power politics remain the same. As with the TPPA, the US initiated the negotiation and will set the agenda, dictate the script and approve the outcome, with other states attempting to influence at margins. Even when Trump withdrew the US from the TPPA, many of the US-driven texts were retained by the remaining eleven countries. We also expect parts of the TPPA to form the starting point for US demands. …
‘The prosperity’ promised by IPEF is principally for the US on terms it can manage politically. The Biden administration is determined to bypass the messy problem of securing approval in the Congress. An ‘executive agreement’ that does not contain market access commitments and does not require the US to change any of its laws avoids that problem. So, unlike the TPPA, IPEF will not include negotiations for other parties to access the US market, removing the most obvious means for other countries to point to any commercial gains. The pro-corporate regulatory settings will reflect the status quo in the US. Add to that the penchant for the US to invoke ‘national security’ exceptions to justify breaching its trade obligations, which makes a mockery of an ‘open rules-based system’ and any pretence that IPEF will be a reciprocal exchange of benefits by all the participating countries.”
Opposing a policy of total subservience
Such goals have not gone unnoticed in Australia. Writing in Green Left Weekly, William Briggs noted how fast the new Labor government of Anthony Albanese fell in line. “The first action of a new government is always steeped in symbolism,” he wrote. “The Anthony Albanese Labor government’s reaffirmation of Australia’s unswerving loyalty to the United States at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) meeting was just so. … The new Labor government is facing almost impossible tasks. No capitalist economy can hope to overcome global crises. Any reform, any tinkering at the edges, is to be supported and welcomed, but a policy of total subservience to the interests of the US is hardly the way forward.”
The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework will be detrimental to the developing countries as well. The president of the Malaysian civil society organization Consumers’ Association of Penang, Mohideen Abdul Kader, said:
“US multinational companies are openly pushing for provisions that would prevent the Malaysian government from preferentially purchasing from our local companies. This undermines domestic manufacturing especially in current times. It also adversely affects the need for small and medium sized firms to recover from the effects of Covid-19. The US industry is also demanding stronger intellectual property protection that would, among others, make medicines, textbooks, agricultural and manufacturing inputs and climate change technology more expensive. The digital economy provisions sought by US big tech companies would undermine Malaysia’s privacy, consumer protection, health, environmental, financial, tax and other crucial regulations, while the privately held global food company Cargill wants provisions that allow foreign investors to sue the government in international tribunals.”
And from the Philippines, Joms Salvador of Gabriela Philippines, in a statement issued through the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, a network of feminist organizations, sees through the attempt to promote the IPEF as benefiting women:
“The IPEF is not, and never will be, just about economic trade, but a link in the chain of US hegemonic dominance in Asia-Pacific, where it has maintained strategic military presence and client relations with its neocolonies in the region, often to the detriment of national sovereignty and the human rights of Asian women and peoples. Women must resist the IPEF and stand our ground in the face of intensifying US-China rivalry and its encroachment on our lives as sovereign peoples.”
Helping women? No, women have seen this movie before
Filipino women are far from alone in rejecting an attempt at whitewashing the corporate-oriented nature of the IPEF. In a statement titled “Statement Rejecting Pinkwashing in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” more than 60 women’s rights organizations, labor unions and civil society organizations firmly rejected an “upskilling” program that is promoted as a way for young women to gain employment in technical fields but it seen as another initiative actually designed to deepen the dominance of U.S.-based Big Tech companies. The coalition of groups, in their statement, said:
“The Upskilling Initiative for Women and Girls promises training by fourteen US Big Tech companies to women in IPEF countries. However, it appears that much of the promise is simply re-packaged training that is already available, and primarily designed as a tool to increase market presence and profits. The initiative is designed to encourage developing countries to agree to ‘high-standard commitments’ on the ‘promotion of cross-border data flows’ which translates to the adoption of rules that have been included in other trade agreements at the behest of Big Tech. Rules that a) restrict governments being able to effectively regulate Big Tech, b) inhibit governments from implementing rights-enhancing data policies for political sovereignty and economic self-determination, c) enable algorithms to be kept secret, d) constrain governments from requiring tech companies to have a local presence, and e) stop governments from pro-actively developing digital industrial policies, including autonomous digital public infrastructure. All of these can be extremely harmful to women’s human rights.
The initiative involves companies that have undermined labour rights, refused to recognise workers as employees, have used tax havens to avoid making tax contributions to public services essential for gender equality. Previous trade agreements have included commitments to gender equality, but those agreements have instead harmed women’s human rights by liberalising services, promoting the privatisation of public services essential in addressing discrimination and exclusion, deregulating the labour market, and promoting a race to the bottom in wages and conditions, and denying governments the policy space required for people to progressively realise their economic rights.”
Opposition also arises in the imperial center
Opposition has begun to be organized across the Pacific, in the United States itself. A letter initiated by Citizens Trade Campaign, a national coalition including unions, community groups and other organizations, released on March 2023 a petition signed by more than 400 labor, environmental, community and religious groups calling for the Biden administration to include strong labor rights based on International Labour Organization standards, binding commitments to combat global warming and digital standards to protect consumer rights and privacy while reining in Big Tech abuses. The letter also asks for transparency during IPEF negotiations: “A more transparent and participatory negotiating process for IPEF would allow for a wider set of interests to provide informed input and ensure equitable treatment of communities which are not part of the official U.S. trade advisor system most representing corporations who now have access to U.S. proposals and other confidential IPEF texts.”
A separate U.S. effort, by a group of consumer advocates, calls on the Biden administration to eliminate IPEF language that they say could undermine efforts to hold Big Tech accountable for their privacy practices. The consumer advocates have not seen any IPEF text because it remains secret from the public, but in their letter they said they “understand from policymakers and others who have reviewed the draft” that its digital trade section could help let U.S. tech companies off the hook when it comes to privacy safeguards, The Washington Post reports. The letter adds that the IPEF contains “problematic terms” giving “Big Tech firms control of our personal data” while limiting other countries from applying regulations.
A third negotiating round is scheduled for May in Singapore. The first round of talks, in Brisbane in December 2022, ended without a status report by participants but reportedly negotiators set aside more challenging issues. The second round, in Bali, Indonesia, ended with a commitment “to an aggressive negotiating schedule throughout 2023,” with nothing of substance revealed.
Activists on both sides of the Pacific had to organize a years-long campaign to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an effort that can only be said, at best, to be partially successful because most of the countries involved did eventually sign it, albeit with somewhat less draconian rules because the most hard-line government, that of the United States, dropped out due to intense domestic pressure. As with the TPP, and the many other “free trade” agreements that have been implemented, the purported benefits for working people are illusions. Fanaticism and fantasy have long driven government propaganda in promoting these deals. Once the TPP text was released, it could readily be seen why it had been secret throughout the negotiations.
“Free trade” agreements — even when falsely advertised as something else — have very little to do with trade and much to do with imposing corporate wish lists, including sweeping away health, safety, labor and environmental standards that can’t be eliminated through democratic means. As with all “free trade” agreements, the fault lines are along class, not national, interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world understand their class interests and are united to promote their interests. Working people uniting across borders, in a broad movement, is the only path toward reversing corporate agendas that accelerate races to the bottom.