If there is one major tenet that sets apart the foreign policy approaches of U.S. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, it is this: Abandoning American leadership in the international community cedes the power to set international norms, rules, and values to other nations.
Rejoining various multilateral organizations and agreements and reinvigorating our global partnerships, in areas like COVID-19 response and climate change, are welcome steps by the Biden administration. However, international engagement should not stop there. Rather, the Biden administration should build on this model and prioritize a forward-looking and impactful economic and trade agenda with the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in working with like-minded regional partners to set the rules of the road on digital trade.
We were both involved in boosting our economic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region during the Obama administration, one as a senior official at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the other as a member of Congress working to build support for and provide oversight of the president’s agenda. What we experienced during that time was the United States taking the lead in developing policies to open markets for U.S. exporters, workers, and farmers, while also using the United States’ prestige and leadership to foster more pro-worker, pro-democracy, and pro-consumer policies in the region.
Make no mistake — the effort to remove trade barriers and expand economic opportunity in the Indo-Pacific has continued, with countries in the region actively working on agreements among themselves and with nations in other regions. The countries of the region are talking, debating, and negotiating over trade policies to help promote growth, create jobs, and improve livelihoods for their citizens. While taking place far from Washington, these discussions are impacting our economy, given global supply chains and future agreements the U.S. may want to develop.
But right now, we’re not at the table.
Biden and USTR Ambassador Katherine Tai have made it clear that they want to take a thoughtful approach on U.S. trade policy, particularly to ensure it continues to be pro-worker and pro-environment. We don’t disagree, having seen both the policy and political benefits when forces aligned during the re-negotiation of NAFTA that resulted in USMCA. There were improvements, compromises, and tough decisions made all around, and the agreement is better for it.
That’s why we strongly believe the United States must continue that work and look for opportunities elsewhere to expand economic opportunity, lead with our values, and develop policies that benefit the U.S. and like-minded partners. One important way the U.S. can do this is by working on a regional digital trade agreement with our friends in the Indo-Pacific region.
Digital trade touches all sectors of our economy, including manufacturing and agriculture, and involves rules around access to the internet, digital inclusiveness, trade facilitation, sharing and storage of data, and others — all critical issues for which rules and norms and policies are still being developed and decided, and which grow in importance every single day. As other countries are far along in this work with each other, we risk losing the opportunity to shape policies that directly affect American citizens and businesses here at home. We’re also losing the opportunity to ensure the policies that ultimately get enshrined are ones that prioritize democratic values, such as a free sharing of ideas and information, individual privacy, and business and consumer protections.
We remain optimistic that the Biden administration will succeed in repositioning the United States as a force for good and a force for international cooperation after four tumultuous years under the previous administration. There is no better way to do that than by advancing economic opportunity and freedom of choice in one of the most economically important and dynamic regions in the world – the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has a unique window of opportunity to do so. We hope they seize it before the table is set without us.