Giving China the Keys to Taiwan’s Ascension to the TPP

By playing into Beijing’s hands, Taipei is allowing 1.3 billion Chinese to have a say in Taiwan’s economic fate
Vincent Y. Chao

In large measure, the visit to Taiwan by Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) has already been a success — at least for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. Both sides have agreed, over renewed public opposition, to quicken the pace of economic integration. More measures for Chinese tourists have been planned. And the government has again signaled that Taiwan’s economic fate relies, in fact, on China’s goodwill.

The message was driven home by the request for China to agree to Taiwan’s eventual membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In a statement on Wednesday, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) told his Chinese counterpart that inclusion in the regional trading regimes was a matter of “survival” for Taiwan’s economy.

The statement is as problematic as it is confusing. The TPP, a multilateral trade agreement poised to become the world’s largest trading regime, is currently under negotiations between the U.S. and 11 other countries. China, incidentally, is not one of them. The pact is seen as part of one of the cornerstones of the U.S. pivot to Asia suggested by President Obama in 2011.

Taiwan’s potential participation in the TPP — supported strongly by both parties — has encountered a number of stumbling blocks in the past. But opposition from China is not one of them. In fact, U.S. officials have signaled both publicly and privately that Taiwan’s relationship with China has “no direct relation” to Taiwan’s ability to join, debunking President Ma’s claims to the contrary. Barriers, instead, continue to be economic in nature.

By relegating membership in the TPP to a footnote in cross-strait relations, the administration has failed to address the difficult questions that are the true obstacles to Taiwan’s participation: fair market access, as well agricultural and industrial reform. Christopher Marut, the top U.S. representative to Taiwan, recently told a Bloomberg interview that Taiwan is “still exploring whether it’s prepared to make the economic reforms that the TPP will require.” Nevertheless, the U.S. has made it clear that Taiwan’s participation in the TPP is not contingent on Beijing’s approval.

To be sure, economic commitments to the U.S. will be difficult for Taiwan, but not necessarily more so than the forceful commitments to China that have so far led to questionable economic benefits and huge social costs as seen during March’s Sunflower Movement. For example, estimates by the Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research show that the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement will only contribute less than 0.034%to GDP growth.

Far more troubling than Wang’s request for China’s permission is its underlying mindset. In doing so, the Ma administration has revealed a tacit acknowledgment that Taiwan’s economic future remains intertwined with China’s, and that even joining an organization outside of China’s sphere of influence will require its approval well before that of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens.

This is exactly what China wants to see: Taiwan’s future, including its economic future, decided by people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. And by playing directly into their hands, the Ma administration has relegated Taiwan’s 23 million citizens to a rounding error in the 1.3 billion Chinese that now have a say in this country’s economic fate.

Vincent Y. Chao is a senior officer at the Democratic Progressive Party’s International Affairs Department.

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