Support for Taiwan’s TPP Bid: It’s All in the Framing

Proponents of Taiwan joining the US-led trade bloc will have to assuage worries about the negative ramifications of greater trade liberalization
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

In February, twelve countries signed on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Seven years in the making, the agreement links signatories, which comprise nearly 40 percent of the world’s GDP, to lower trade barriers among member states. The U.S. sees the TPP as a means to set the terms of international trade before a rising China can do the same. Meanwhile, many within Taiwan and abroad have argued for Taiwan’s inclusion in later TPP negotiating rounds (see here, here, here, here and here), seeing TPP entry as one of the main international challenges for the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration. Yet, little attention has been placed on how Taiwanese citizens view the TPP.

Free trade agreements are often domestically controversial in Taiwan and elsewhere, because while reducing trade barriers promotes international trade and economic growth, some domestic producers are likely to face steep competition from cheaper importers. Thus the TPP faces similar domestic challenges as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

We wanted to gauge not only Taiwanese public support for the TPP, but whether or not support differed by how the agreement was framed. Issue framing, whether by the media or from politicians, has long been acknowledged for its role in shaping public perceptions, from gun control to immigration. To test the role of framing on evaluations of the TPP, we conducted an experimental survey on 406 Taiwanese through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four prompts about the TPP. These included a generic statement of the TPP, one focusing on potential benefits, one on potential drawbacks, and one that included both pro and cons. The English translation of each version is below:

V1: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Taiwan is a potential member.

V2: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Taiwan is a potential member. Proponents state that that the TPP will promote economic growth, reduce poverty, and enhance innovation and competitiveness.

V3: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Taiwan is a potential member. Opponents claim that the TPP could raise the costs of medicine, increase income inequality, and harm the environment.

 V4: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Taiwan is a potential member. Proponents state that that the TPP will promote economic growth, reduce poverty, and enhance innovation and competitiveness. Opponents claim that the TPP could raise the costs of medicine, increase income inequality, and harm the environment.

This prompt was followed by a question asking to evaluate the following statement on a five-point scale (strongly oppose to strongly agree): “Overall, I am supportive of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Based on the literature on framing, we expected higher support among those receiving the positively framed version (V2) and lower support for the negatively framed version (V3). We also expected a balanced framing (V4) to result in similar results to the baseline (V1).

chart1

 

Overall, respondents averaged a 3.68 on the five-point scale, suggestive of a lukewarm response to the TPP. However, subtle differences emerge across the randomized framing. For the baseline (red on the table), respondents averaged a score of 3.85. Surprisingly, this declined slightly for those presented with just the proponents’ view of the TPP (3.74). As expected, when framed by opponents’ claims, support declined noticeably (3.45). However, even presenting both sides on the TPP elicited a lower evaluation than no information and slightly lower than simply just a positive framing. Furthermore, compared to the baseline both opponent and balanced framing are statistically significant (at .05 or stronger).

This same basic pattern endures when additional analyses control for age, gender, education, and income. Considering that free trade often disproportionately impacts those of lower socioeconomic status, it should not be surprising that higher income corresponds with greater support for the TPP. In addition, older respondents were more supportive and women less supportive, while education surprisingly had minimal effect on views. Similarly, the same patterns are seen among Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) identifiers, although with stronger results among the former. We also asked in separate questions whether respondents believed President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) or president-elect Tsai supported the TPP. Ma and the KMT have routinely voiced support for the agreement (see here and here) as has Tsai and the DPP (see here). Surprisingly, most in our survey (56.2%) believed Ma was supportive, yet only 8.1% thought the same regarding Tsai, suggesting a potential hurdle for the DPP.

Since perceptions of the TPP may be influenced by other free trade agreements and views of other countries, we also controlled for these factors. For example, we found those supportive of the ECFA were more likely to view the TPP positively regardless of the framing. We also asked for evaluations of 10 countries on a ten-point scale (U.S., Japan, both Koreas, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, and Germany) as a means to identify whether broader international factors potentially influenced views. Predictably positive evaluations of the U.S. and Germany associated with a slight boost on the TPP scale, while positive evaluations of China corresponded with a decline. Yet, the framing of the TPP still maintained a statistically significant difference.

The results are largely consistent with previous research on framing. However, that support for the TPP declined when presented a balanced account of the pros and cons suggests at the very least that proponents must exert greater efforts to assuage worries about the negative ramifications of greater trade liberalization.

 

Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems. His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.

Lucas Knight is a sophomore at Western Kentucky University, attending through the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science, with an interest in politics and foreign affairs. He is currently researching perceptions on free trade agreements, and specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Taiwan, with Dr. Timothy Rich. 

One Response to “Support for Taiwan’s TPP Bid: It’s All in the Framing”

March 22, 2016 at 12:38 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Framing is indeed important, and is often more subtle than the statements featured in the study the authors describe. Two examples:

1) The “negative disproportionate impact” which international trade has on the poor is a result that only comes into focus as a matter of very particular framing. Relatively poor people in rich countries lose their jobs to foreign competition (often from poorer countries). At the same time, poor people in poor countries often gain jobs and much needed income from this increased trade. So the impact of trade on “the poor” is a matter of framing: which poor are we talking about?

Granted, the context for this study is that of domestic politics where the interests of foreign workers are assumed to be irrelevant. But there is a further point about framing to be made, which is that it is also a question of time. Over the short term, fewer government restrictions allow the destruction of certain industries and the jobs that go with them. But historically that has also lead to the creation of new products and services and a richer economy. This is made clear not only by such things as smart phones, cheap coffee and nike trainers, but by things like the reduction in numbers of death by contagious diseases which was made possible by the expensive medical research which in turn comes from having a large, thriving economy. So yes, it really is a matter of framing.

“However, that support for the TPP declined when presented a balanced account of the pros and cons suggests at the very least that proponents must exert greater efforts to assuage worries about the negative ramifications of greater trade liberalization.”

That is made rather difficult by two things. The first is that the benefits of further international trade for people in already rich countries are likely to be much more marginal when compared to the benefits for people in poor countries. This is because even the relatively poor in rich countries already enjoy a comparatively high material standard of living. Really obvious improvements aren’t likely to arrive until the next significant technological breakthrough (e.g. cheap ultra-capacitors for storing electricity generated by renewable technologies). The second difficulty is that it is hard to assuage people’s worries about greater trade when both the media and the State education establishment are biased against it, resulting in proponents of greater trade liberalization being either ignored or effectively “no platformed”.

2) The TPP is referred to as a “free trade agreement”, when in actual fact it is an agreement to reduce some trade restrictions, not an agreement to eliminate all of them altogether. It would be more accurate to refer to the TPP as a “trade growth agreement”, or even just a “trade agreement”. By referring to it as “free trade”, opponents confuse the reduction of trade barriers with the absence of trade barriers. If “free trade” is then framed into meaning a government managed reduction in trade barriers, it is easier to elide the alternative from the discussion…

…Which is that, if the aim is national prosperity, then trade negotiations are unnecessary. The government could simply declare unilateral free trade and be done with it.

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