Fourteen member states of a U.S.-led Indo-Pacific economic initiative agreed Thursday to bolster regional supply chains, moving a step closer toward the launch of formal negotiations under the initiative, according to Japan's trade minister.
Yasutoshi Nishimura told reporters after the first day of a two-day Indo-Pacific Economic Framework ministerial meeting in Los Angeles that IPEF members shared their understanding on the importance of ensuring supply chain resilience after disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"I think we are just a step away from getting a big result," said Nishimura, minister of economy, trade and industry. "We will steadily continue discussions until reaching the start of (formal) negotiations."
Upon conclusion of the first in-person ministerial gathering of IPEF, the member states are expected to declare the launch of formal negotiations for the framework involving four pillars -- fair trade, supply chain resilience, clean energy together with decarbonization and infrastructure, as well as proper taxation and anti-corruption.
The ministers are planning to release a post-meeting statement containing an agreement on cooperation for the recovery of supply chains of vital products, such as semiconductors and critical minerals, in the event of a disaster or other contingency, especially as China asserts claims over the East and South China seas as well as Taiwan -- potential flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific.
The ministers from countries like Japan, the United States, Australia and India, which together account for 40 percent of world gross domestic product, were focusing on setting high standards in new areas like the digital economy, cross-border data flows and data localization, as well as labor issues, on top of the supply chain issue.
Unlike a conventional trade agreement, IPEF does not involve tariff cuts and other trade liberalization measures, leading critics to question the initiative's value to participating countries.
As part of a new IPEF initiative, the United States on Thursday announced the launch of an education and training program on digital skills targeting women and girls in response to some skepticism on whether IPEF, without market access and tariff liberalization, can deliver tangible benefits.
The Commerce Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said 14 American companies such as Apple Inc. and Google LLC will provide access to training and education in digital skills to some 7 million women and girls in emerging economies and others by 2032.
"We are committed to offering tangible and concrete benefits to the partner countries participating in IPEF," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a press release.
The program will include training for girls in fields such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, and supporting digital literacy and entrepreneurship training for rural-based girls and women.
"As we continue to work together to build a more inclusive, sustainable economic recovery, and as we discuss innovative ways to do trade under the IPEF, we must prioritize lifelong learning for our women," U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said.
Initial countries taking part in the "IPEF Upskilling Initiative" include Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to the Commerce Department.
Fiji's trade minister Faiyaz Koya welcomed the U.S. public-private endeavor's support for sustainable and inclusive economic growth in the region.
"The contribution of this initiative has the potential to be actually immeasurably valuable. And the impact will be felt today and in decades to come," he said at the launch event of the upskilling initiative, which was open to the media.
U.S. officials say IPEF is at the center of President Joe Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017, leaving China, the world's second-largest economy, to increase its clout in the fast-growing region.
In a show of U.S. economic engagement, Biden announced the establishment of IPEF during his trip to Japan in May.
In Los Angeles, IPEF member states are expected to determine which countries will join negotiations for each of the four pillars, an outcome that will be released in the post-meeting statement.
Trade experts say the flexible approach appears to have lowered participation hurdles for some countries, especially those in Southeast Asia.
The 14 IPEF members are Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.