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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Risch, Cantwell push for more U.S. trade with Indo-Pacific region as Biden makes first trip to Asia

US President Joe Biden, right, speaks with South Korean President Yoon Suk-youl next to him during a press conference after a visit to the Samsung Electronic Pyeongtaek Campus, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Friday. May 20, 2022.  (Kim Min-hee)

WASHINGTON – As President Joe Biden arrived in South Korea to kick off his first trip to Asia on Friday, two Northwest senators penned a bipartisan letter urging him to prioritize economic ties with the Indo-Pacific region, a major driver of Washington and Idaho’s economies.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent the letter to Biden along with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The two influential lawmakers, who are almost always on opposite sides of partisan issues, emphasized the need to counter China’s economic influence in the region that includes India, Japan, Australia and other nations around the Indian and Pacific oceans.

“The United States – led by our entrepreneurial private sector – is deeply engaged in Indo-Pacific economies already,” the senators wrote, citing the 10 Southeast Asian nations that comprise the economic alliance known as ASEAN, which together form the fourth-largest market for U.S. exports and support jobs for 625,000 Americans. “Yet, U.S. administrations of both parties could do much better in pursuing a consistent and robust Indo-Pacific agenda on trade and economic issues.”

Former President Donald Trump, in one of his first moves after taking the oath of office in 2017, pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact that was the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” aimed at countering an ascendant China. The deal eventually went forward without U.S. involvement, while Risch and 25 other GOP senators urged Trump to reconsider his move to no avail.

In February, the Biden administration released its “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” signaling a renewed effort to turn U.S. foreign policy attention to Asia. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine and forced the United States to again focus on Europe.

Illustrating the challenge facing the administration as it juggles competing priorities, Biden welcomed the leaders of ASEAN countries to the White House on May 13 and squeezed in a visit by the leaders of Finland and Sweden – who announced their intention to join the NATO alliance – before jetting off to Seoul on Thursday.

The economies of Washington and Idaho rely heavily on trade across the Pacific, according to data from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Exports accounted for nearly 14% of Washington’s gross domestic product and more than 5% of Idaho’s in 2018.

The Biden administration has not pushed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, but the president is expected to unveil the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework after he arrives in Japan on Sunday, a partnership aimed at promoting common economic standards but not a traditional trade deal that will lower tariffs. Cantwell and Risch warned that failing to enter a similar trade deal could leave an opening for China to join the TPP, a scenario that “would constitute a massive policy failure with consequences for decades to come.”

“For greater flexibility there may be merit in pursuing bilateral trade agreements,” they wrote. But they warned that without the U.S. participating in the TPP or other regional trade alliance, Asian countries allied with the U.S. won’t be able to stop China’s bid to join the TPP in the long term.

The senators urged Biden to increase economic assistance to the region and to create incentives to improve supply chain problems that have contributed to rising costs around the world. They also encouraged the president to support clean energy projects in the Indo-Pacific and to collaborate with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom and European countries on investments in the region.

Biden’s trip continued Saturday with a meeting with South Korea’s newly elected President Yoon Suk Yeol. He will travel to Japan late Sunday for meetings with that country’s emperor and prime minister before leaving Tuesday for Washington.