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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris convened an emergency meeting of key regional powers Friday on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok to discuss North Korea’s latest missile launch, that fell 200 kilometers off Japan’s coast.
“This conduct by North Korea most recently is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security resolutions. It destabilizes the security in the region, and unnecessarily raises tensions,” Harris said in brief remarks to press prior to meeting with leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The launch is the latest of the barrage of missiles that North Korea has test-fired in recent weeks. Pyongyang said they were a “corresponding military operation” aimed at conducting simulated strikes on South Korea and the United States in response to large-scale allied air drills.
North Korea’s provocation occurs amid already heightened geopolitical tensions over the war in Ukraine that has exacerbated supply chain issues and inflationary pressures globally.
Harris is in Bangkok as the head of the U.S. delegation in the meetings of members of APEC, a grouping of 21 economies in the Asia Pacific, whose mandate is to promote regional economic cooperation and integration.
“Our message is clear; the United States has an enduring economic commitment to the Indo Pacific, one that is measured not in years but in decades and generations,” she said during remarks at the APEC CEO Summit.
Harris argued that there is “no better economic partner for the Indo-Pacific than the United States of America” as she pushed for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework that Washington launched in May.
Indo-Pacific Economic Framework
The framework is a trade facilitation, standards-setting, and capacity-building mechanism designed to provide a counterweight against Chinese economic clout in the region. It is the Biden administration’s effort to reengage Indo-Pacific nations on trade after former President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew in 2017 from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The previous U.S. administration, that of President Barack Obama, had promoted and launched that regional comprehensive trade pact in 2015.
Thirteen countries in the region have signed on to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, which includes provisions divided into categories that countries can choose from – fair and resilient trade; supply chain resiliency; clean energy, decarbonization and infrastructure; and taxation and anti-corruption.
While there are signals the region wants the U.S. to increase its economic engagement to counterbalance China’s, it has given lukewarm reception to IPEF, which does not include market access or tariff-reduction provisions.
Beijing meanwhile boasts the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement it promoted and has been signed onto by Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is also accelerating negotiations on the ASEAN -China Free Trade Area “Version 3.0” with Southeast Asian nations.
It is a big challenge for U.S. policymakers to match China’s latest geoeconomic maneuver, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Science and International Security at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Nevertheless, the U.S. is still a major investor in the region, Pongsudhirak told VOA.
“The stock of U.S. investments is immense, very close to China. They take turns going back and forth,” he said.
Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment
Harris highlighted the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the West’s counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
“At the G-7 we intend to mobilize $600 billion in infrastructure investment in the developing world that will be high standard, transparent, climate-friendly,” Harris said.
In a veiled criticism of Beijing, she added the partnership, “does not leave countries with insurmountable debt.”
Harris noted the Just Energy Transition Partnership developed with Indonesia during its G-20 presidency that aims to mobilize $20 billion over the next three to five years to help the country’s energy transition and implementation of its climate agenda.
“That effort shows Washington recognizes that it has work to do to compete with China,” said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, said.
“However, until tangible projects are delivered, skepticism about U.S. efforts will remain,” she told VOA.
Like many other countries in the region who look to China to bankroll its infrastructure, Indonesia in 2023 is set to launch its Beijing-funded $8 billion high-speed rail project connecting Jakarta and Bandung.
The APEC summit caps off a series of international meetings in Southeast Asia this week, following the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia and the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Harris is standing in for President Joe Biden who attended the G-20 and ASEAN meetings but returned to Washington Wednesday to host his granddaughter’s upcoming wedding at the White House.
Biden’s absence will feed into some of the concerns and anxieties the region has on U.S. commitment to the region, said Andreyka Natalegawa, associate fellow for the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to VOA.
However, Natalegawa noted that the U.S. IS taking over as APEC chair next year.
“That’s sort of a strong signal that Washington remains engaged and committed to economic integration in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Following his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali Monday, from Bangkok Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against Cold War tensions, saying that the Asia-Pacific is no one’s backyard and should not become an arena of big power rivalry.
Capping off her day in Bangkok, Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff will meet with King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua and Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana.