When Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia visited Taipei in May, the local media called it progress. It was the first visit by a senior US government official in a long time. Over the 1990s there had been Cabinet-level visits, but none in the present administration of US President George W. Bush. That's progress?
The purpose of the visit was a long awaited Trade and Investment Framework Agreement meeting. Taiwan had shown sufficient progress on intellectal property rights to remove it from the 301 Priority Watch List. In this meeting, Taiwan continued to show progress on other matters but work still had to be done.
However, the real interest in the meeting was in the potential for a free trade agreement between Taiwan and the US, and its impact on cross-strait relations. There are various interests on cross-strait issues within Taiwan, but some of the Taiwan media played the FTA issue as most important.
Soon afterwards the issue of a possible FTA for Taiwan was raised in Bhatia's testimony to the US House International Relations Committee. It seems to be common in Washington these days, with it's almost complete focus on the Middle East and North Korea, that the usually ambiguous words used on other sensitive issues easily get policy vocabulary a bit twisted.
The first talks between the US and Taiwan on the feasibility of a FTA took place several years ago. The competition among countries that wanted to sign a FTA agreement with the US at that time was just as difficult as it is today. Then as now, the US Trade Representative (USTR) established the economic goals the US wants from a FTA.
What was seen by the US side in those early years, and openly agreed by many on the Taiwan side, was that the FTA priority for Taiwan was political -- including support for Taiwan's participation in the international community and strengthening its position in cross-strait relations. The USTR, with its economic priorities, saw this as an opportunity to improve on bilateral economic problems, most wanted by US companies or industries, such as intellectual property rights, not on a FTA agreement that would be of less importance to US companies.
Taiwan now seems to have established a much stronger economic basis for arguing its case on a FTA, helped ironically by the rise of China's economic importance. Ironically also, however, it seems the US side has changed its strategy on the FTA issue with Taiwan -- in entirely the opposite direction. There is now in Taiwan a very strong and important debate on the extent Taiwan's economy can gain from greater relations with China's economy, without losing it's separate identity, sovereignty and democracy. That is of crucial importance to Taiwan, but it also is equally important to the US and Japan.
Taiwanese companies need to expand to other countries besides China. Over the years, they have demonstrated their capacity to move quickly from one country to another when necessary, especially in Southeast Asia, but elsewhere as well. Many US companies in China have Taiwanese supervisors and technicians. Having a US-Taiwan FTA partnership would be important for both the US and Taiwan.
The statements in the press made by Bhatia seem to suggest that Taiwan should have closer ties to China. That "given the important role China plays in the East Asian economy, and given the integration of the East Asia economy that is ongoing, it's important that Taiwan not be economically isolated from developments in the rest of East Asia ... and cross-strait relations affect that."