U.S. Multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific

November 14, 2023 By David Huang

As world leaders gather in San Franciso this week for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, U.S. engagement with APEC members reaches new highs. U.S. exports to fellow APEC economies support nearly 7 million jobs at home and $1.7 trillion in foreign direct investment from APEC economies in the U.S. The Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific engagement over the last two years builds on the historic bipartisan prioritization of the region through multilateral institution forums and strategies that enhance economic opportunity, security, and diplomatic relations.

U.S. engagement with multilateral institutions such as APEC, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Pacific Island Forum is a vital part of the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific Strategy building on the diplomatic and people-to-people relationships with Indo-Pacific nations, which opens opportunities for Americans and American companies.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy

The United States launched the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and the U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy in 2022 as part of its efforts to strengthen its diplomatic, economic, and security presence in the Indo-Pacific region. In the first year, these strategies have helped drive economic growth and prosperity through trade and investment, strengthened infrastructure against climate change, and bolstered regional security through the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade and the U.S.-Taiwan Technology Trade and Investment Collaboration (TTIC) framework, the economic-focused work in the Quad, and the Just Energy Transition Partnerships with Indonesia and Vietnam. Working through partnerships in the region is a key part of not only fulfilling the objectives of the two strategies but also creating an enabling environment for global stability and improvements in livelihood, especially in developing countries. At the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework launch event in May of 2022, President Biden said that “…the United States is deeply invested in the Indo-Pacific. We’re committed for the long haul, ready to champion our vision for a positive future for the region together with friends and partners… It’s a priority in our agenda, and we’re going to keep working to make progress with all of you every day so that we can deliver real, concrete benefits for all our people.”

U.S. Relationship with Indo-Pacific Multilateral Organizations


Dialogue between the U.S. and multilateral organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), and the Pacific Islands Forum have existed for decades. The first U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting was held in 1978 in Washington under President Carter. The U.S. has worked closely with ASEAN to launch initiatives such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), to sign trade and investment frameworks, and to increase regional capacity to address transnational challenges such as combating corruption, addressing and responding to the vulnerabilities of partner nations due to climate change and environmental degradation, and supporting critical infrastructure resilience.

The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) is the U.S. government’s signature leadership development and networking program for youth across Southeast Asia. The initiative supports emerging leaders in learning and addressing regional issues through professional and academic exchanges and workshops. Those who take part in this program utilize the skills that they have learned to improve their communities and local governments. Notable alumni from this program include Carrie Tan, a Singaporean politician who advocated for women’s empowerment; and Victor “Vico” Sotto, the Mayor of Pasig City of the Philippines who was recognized for his efforts in anticorruption efforts by the U.S. Department of State. Programs such as the YSEALI allow the U.S. to not only help rising leaders hone their skills in areas such as women’s empowerment, anticorruption reforms, and climate change but also show that the U.S. is a willing partner to help form the next generation in tackling local challenges in civil society.

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation

The U.S. also participates in the APEC forum as part of a regional mechanism to enhance trade between nations in Asia-Pacific. The U.S. is a founding member of APEC and helped establish it in 1989 as an informal ministerial-level dialogue between it and the 11 other founding members (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand). APEC was founded to allow the members to leverage the growing interdependence of the Asia-Pacific with the goal of creating greater prosperity for the people of the region through balanced, inclusive, sustainable, innovative, and secure means of economic integration. In 1993, the practice of an annual APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting was established to provide a greater strategic vision and direction for cooperation in the region, and since then, the real GDP of the region has increased from $19 trillion in 1989 to $52.8 trillion in 2021. This has allowed residents to see their per capita income increase, lifted millions out of poverty, and created a growing middle class. U.S. goods and services trade with APEC totaled around $2.9 trillion in 2020, with exports totaling $1.1 trillion and imports amounting to $1.7 trillion. U.S. engagement with APEC has allowed the advancement of free, fair, and reciprocal trade in the region, reducing the transaction costs for U.S. businesses, increasing service competitiveness by lowering barriers that impede U.S. service exports, and many more that allow the creation of more jobs at home.

Pacific Island Forum

The U.S. established its forum dialogue with the Pacific Islands Forum in 1989, it has since become a member of the Pacific Community (SPC), the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and attends the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders. It also holds an annual roundtable on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly and at the annual Pacific Islands Forum. From these forums and dialogue, programs such as the U.S. South Pacific Scholarship Program was created, which provides students from the Pacific Islands opportunities to earn their Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of Hawai’i. This allows participants to pursue studies in business, agriculture, environmental studies, gender studies, and public health. A featured alumnus from this program is Jennifer Kalpokas Doan, the first woman and independent Ni-Vanuatu to be appointed to the board of Bank South Pacific Limited (BSP). In addition, the South Pacific Tuna Treaty has been a cornerstone of U.S. cooperation with the Pacific Islands for over three decades and has helped combat illegal fishing helped build climate resilience, and improved the sustainability and conservation of fisheries in the region.

U.S. two-way trade with the Pacific Islands in 2020 totaled to $968 million with exports amounting to $548 million and imports totaling $420 million. In 2020, the U.S. and the Republic of Fiji signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, creating  a platform that further expands and deepens the bilateral trade and investment ties between the two countries in areas such as improving technology and enhancing sustainable economic development. This agreement opens the door to future agreements between the United States and other Pacific Island nations that can expand trade, increase foreign direct investment, and even create more jobs in the future in the U.S. and in the Pacific Islands as markets develop.


The U.S.’s work with Allies and partners on issues such as trade, development projects, and tackling the climate crisis, the Indo-Pacific region will become more secure and allow for more economic opportunities for American trade, jobs, and exports in the region. In addition to continuing to participate in these multilateral institutions and improving on existing relations, many nations, especially developing countries, see the United States as a valuable and reliable economic and diplomatic partner.