Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) negotiations Brisbane, plus AFTINET public forum recording

December 16, 2022: IPEF negotiators from 14 Indo-Pacific countries met in Brisbane from December 10-15. They include the United States, Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

IPEF is a US initiative to diversify its supply chains away from China towards its allies and create US-style rules in the region. It is not a traditional trade agreement with binding commitments because the US is not offering any more access to its own markets, but relying on investment projects as incentives, especially for developing countries. The US is chairing most negotiations and pushing for quick agreements.

The Labor government’s policy on trade transparency promises more transparent and accountable trade negotiations, including access to negotiating texts and independent evaluation of costs and benefits of trade agreements.

AFTINET, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and other civil society organisations, alongside business organisations, were able to make presentations to negotiators on the morning of December 13. Our presentations included the need for transparency, enforceable labour rights and environmental standards, the rights of women and Indigenous Peoples, and the danger of deregulation of digital trade when governments are struggling to regulate for consumer privacy, cyber security and to protect the rights of gig economy workers. The session was well-attended, and we were also able to meet negotiators informally after the session.

But this consultation is a one-way street because the US required that Australia and other IPEF countries sign secrecy agreements pledging to keep all negotiating documents secret until five years after the negotiations finish. Meaningful input is difficult without access to the details of negotiating proposals.

It was also clear that business organisations had more extensive contact with negotiators through hiring a room in the conference centre and offering specific events for negotiators to attend.

IPEF’s four pillar negotiating goals include digital trade, agriculture, diversification of supply chains, labour and environment standards, inclusion of women, indigenous people and people with disabilities, cooperation on clean energy technologies and carbon emissions reduction, and cooperation on tax avoidance and corruption.

Governments can choose which pillars to be involved in. Given the diversity of IPEF members, it will be difficult to reach agreement on all pillars. For example, India has opted out of the trade pillar, with concerns about digital trade deregulation and commitments on labour rights and environmental standards.

Business groups are promoting binding trade agreements like the US-Canada-Mexico Agreement as models for binding commitments on the regulation of digital trade and other issues. But it is not clear that the positive negotiating goals on labour rights, environmental standards and inclusion of women and indigenous people will involve binding commitments.

AFTINET organised a public forum on IPEF in Brisbane featuring Australian and overseas speakers. See the recording here.

For background information on IPEF see Dr Patricia Ranald’s article in The Conversation.