It was May 23, 2022, and the stage was set. U.S. president Joe Biden, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi were on hand, together in-person in Tokyo. Leaders and senior officials from ten other Indo-Pacific countries—ranging from South Korea to Brunei—joined virtually, calling in for the launch of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Yet, something was missing. In fact, at least two things were missing—two key Southeast Asian countries, both of whose leaders had joined Biden at the White House just weeks prior: Cambodia and Laos. (Myanmar was not invited either, but that was expected, given the military junta’s February 2021 coup).
Both Cambodia and Laos wanted to be there; both had for months expressed interest in joining the IPEF. They repeatedly reached out to U.S. officials, hoping to set up discussions on IPEF. But the Americans brushed them aside, offering excuses each time. These excuses, however, seem to have been thinly-veiled cover for Washington’s real rationale—a sense that both Cambodia and Laos are already Chinese client states, and therefore simply were not worth an IPEF invite.
Both countries are indeed extremely close to China. But both are nonetheless looking to diversify their foreign relations, particularly by building more functional ties with the United States.
There is a reason why Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen pushed so hard for the U.S.-ASEAN summit when other regional leaders were less keen, why Cambodia recently hired an army of lobbyists to improve views of the country in Washington, and why Laos recently rolled out the red carpet for both Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Deputy USAID Administrator Isobel Coleman. It is for that same reason that failing to invite Cambodia and Laos was a self-inflicted error by the United States.
The fact that IPEF is not a traditional trade deal only boosts the case for including them.
The Framework comprises four pillars—Connected Economy (trade), Resilient Economy (supply chains), Clean Economy (climate), and Fair Economy (tax and anti-corruption)—for which the United States hopes to produce binding agreements. Member countries can choose to join one pillar, all four pillars, or any combination of the four as they please.
This high level of flexibility suggests limited concern about ensuring that Cambodia and Laos meet the high standards of, say, Japan or Singapore. If Cambodia and Laos were invited, many of the standards on issues like trade and supply chains would probably be so high that they would perhaps join only the less-contentious climate pillar. Even that, however, would be a success for the United States; it would be one more area of cooperation and potential progress with Cambodia and Laos than we had before.
Most countries, meanwhile, are not even treating IPEF meetings as trade agreement negotiations. Some are even refusing to call their representatives “negotiators.” These are not traditional trade negotiations, but more open-ended talks. There is not much practical downside to inviting Cambodia and Laos to meetings of that nature.
It would have been far better, then, for the United States to cast a wide net for IPEF—and put the onus on Cambodia and Laos to say no—than to preemptively exclude them based on outdated assumptions about their foreign policy alignments.
There is still an opportunity to reverse course. Fiji is not a founding IPEF member but nonetheless joined days after it was announced. The White House has explicitly said that it is open to new members.
The Biden administration would be wise to follow through on that promise and extend belated invitations to Cambodia and Laos. The worst that could happen is that they say no; the best, meanwhile, is a meaningful step towards prying them, if just slightly, out of China’s orbit. And with a cost-benefit ratio like that, there is no reason—perhaps besides institutional inertia—for Washington not to act.
Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.