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Biden says US needs to align with democracies after RCEP signing

China shouldn't be 'the only game in town,' president-elect argues

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks about economic recovery at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 16.   © AP

NEW YORK -- America needs to align with other democracies so that they, and not China, can write the rules on trade, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden said Monday, the day after 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed a historic free trade agreement that does not include Washington.

"We make up 25% of the world's trading capacity, of the economy of the world. We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25% or more, so that we can set the rules of the road," Biden noted when answering a question on whether the U.S. should consider joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, "instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town." 

"I promise you I have a pretty thorough plan, and I will be prepared to announce that to you on Jan. 21," the day after his inauguration, Biden said. He had called the briefing to deliver his first economic address as president-elect in Wilmington, Delaware, laying out plans to create 18.6 million jobs and step up federal investment in clean-energy research.

But the former vice president stopped short of disclosing more of his thoughts on trade, citing restrictions as a president-elect.

"I've talked with a number of these world leaders, and I told them under the law I'm not able to begin to discuss with them -- there's only one president at a time -- as to who can say what our policy will be," he said.

Biden did lay out three prerequisites for any new trade agreements the U.S. sets out to make.

"One, we're going to invest in American workers and make them more competitive," he said. "No. 2, we're going to make sure that labor is at the table and environmentalists are at the table in any trade deals we make."

Lastly, "I'm not looking for punitive trade. The idea that we are poking our finger in the eyes of our friends and embracing autocrats makes no sense to me," Biden said in an apparent swipe at President Donald Trump's approach to international relations and trade.

Biden said that taking a stand on RCEP or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a similar Asian trade pact that Trump withdrew from, was different from his promise to return to the Paris Agreement on climate change or a return to the World Health Organization because it involved "whether I'd join a specific proposal, the details of which are now only being negotiated among those nations."

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, left, and Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh applaud next to a screen showing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Commerce Minister Zhong Shan holding up the signed RCEP agreement in Hanoi on Nov. 15.    © AP

Biden's remarks Monday were consistent with his messaging on the campaign trail regarding the need to restore American leadership, including in trade. But the Democrat has also said he will not jump into a new trade deal negotiation before investing in American competitiveness.

RCEP, signed Sunday, spans 15 Asia-Pacific countries that together account for 30% or so of the world's gross domestic product, making it the largest global trading bloc to date.

It covers China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India withdrew from the RCEP talks last year.

The partnership marks China's first time entering a nonbilateral free trade agreement of this scale.

Premier Li Keqiang hailed it as "not only a monumental achievement in East Asian regional cooperation, but more important, a victory of multilateralism and free trade," state media reported.

The U.S., the world's largest economy, is not a party to RCEP or the TPP.

Biden has said he would try to renegotiate the TPP but has not committed to rejoining. In the 2016 presidential race, domestic pressure led then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to distance herself from the TPP. Under Trump's "America first" ideology, America has shown little interest in joining Asia's multilateral framings.

Former U.S. trade negotiator Wendy Cutler calls the signing of RCEP "another wake-up call for the United States on trade."

The agreement "is another reminder that our Asian trading partners have developed a confidence about working together without the United States," wrote Cutler, now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, in a Sunday commentary. "This is a far cry from the early days of the Trump administration when the remaining TPP members were doubtful of their ability to go forward without Washington."

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