The Biden administration’s proposed Indo Pacific Economic Framework, an effort to strengthen economic ties and improve trading conditions with countries like India, the Philippines and Vietnam, got some praise during a Tuesday Senate hearing, but much of the time was spent discussing what it would not accomplish - new market access for U.S. ag.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the framework would unite the U.S. and Asian countries to counteract the widening influence of China, but other lawmakers and witnesses argued China has been more aggressive recently in negotiating new market access through tariff-reducing trade deals. 

“Although the administration announced that it seeks to pursue an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, or IPEF, it unfortunately indicated that this framework will not include any market access component,” said Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, the top Republican on the panel.

Wyden said the IPEF – which is still in its formative stage – will accomplish much by bridging key gaps.

“When you look across the Pacific, there are big markets for everything from Oregon blueberries and alfalfa to manufactured goods to services,” Wyden said. “Raising environmental standards and ensuring robust labor rights in the region could help also level the playing field for American workers.”

Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, a witness at the hearing, founder of AgTrade Strategies LLC and former assistant U.S. trade representative for agricultural affairs and commodity policy, said that while the IPEF would strengthen foreign relations, create a “common vision on agricultural sustainability and lower non-tariff trade barriers in the Indo-Pacific region, new market access under free trade agreements are ideal.

“One key element of enhancing the sustainability of American farms and ranches is investing the time, energy and ambition to negotiate free trade agreements to increase our competitiveness and open export markets,” she told lawmakers. “And there’s no better place than to focus on the Indo-Pacific region.”

Kelly Ann Shaw, a former deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs during the Trump administration, called the IPEF “a modest step in the right direction,” but she said it “risks turning into another failed exercise” if it doesn’t bring the advantages of a free trade agreement like China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that the U.S. withdrew from under Trump.

“It is difficult to imagine IPEF having a meaningful impact on long-term U.S. economic interests without enforceable commitments on market access, rules of origin, technical barriers to trade (TBT), services, intellectual property, investment, or state-owned enterprises to name a few,” Shaw said.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey offered tepid praise for IPEF, calling it “just a good first step” and relaying demands from leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for a “more robust” agreement.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that before Congress even considers IPEF it needs to reauthorize the president's trade promotion authority, which ensures an administration can submit a trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote without the threat of lawmakers amending it. TPA expired last July.

The IPEF shows promise in advancing shared values between the U.S. and Asian allies, said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., but he also lamented that it is not expected to reduce tariffs or create new market access for U.S. exporters.

Bomer Lauritsen stressed that the U.S. needs new market access to keep from seeing its international competitiveness continue to erode.

“Already food and agricultural exporters are falling behind in the Indo Pacific region,” she said. “For example, in Vietnam for beef and pork … we are at a disadvantage. While we have high quality products, we really need to get to the table to negotiate lower tariffs and compete.”

Vietnam is a member of the CPTPP and RCEP.