The Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) received as much attention as would be expected at this year’s APEC summit in Hawaii, turning it into big global news. Differing from APEC, which is a loose economic forum, the TPP is a proposed system of cooperation for the trans-Pacific region that could be defined as a large-scale free-trade agreement (FTA). Since Taiwan is already a member of APEC, membership in the TPP should be smooth and free from the political interference Taiwan has experienced in the past.
Incomprehensibly, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said in a public announcement on Nov. 14 that the government would use the next decade to prepare to join the TPP so Taiwan could avoid being left out of regional economic integration.
Not only did the president fail to express a willingness to aggressively pursue TPP membership, but the timeline he set out was also a roundabout way of rejecting TPP membership.
If the government desires to be a part of the TPP, why wait 10 years? Do we really need a decade to establish the conditions needed to join the TPP?
Even if agriculture is a thorny issue and tariffs are needed as protection, Vietnam — already negotiating to become a TPP member — and Japan, which will be joining negotiations soon, have the same problem. South Korea, which has signed FTAs with the US and the EU, also faces the problem of liberalizing agricultural products. Why is it then that South Korea and Vietnam can do it, but Taiwan can’t?
Taiwan’s agricultural and fisheries industries underwent transformation long ago; they are currently producing refined and sophisticated products. These industries no longer need a single market or a market with cheap prices for consumers. They need markets with higher prices spread across the globe. The TPP can provide this; it is suitable for the direction in which Taiwan’s agricultural industry is headed.
Furthermore, Taiwan can negotiate with Japan and Vietnam to gain benefits and much-needed time buffers. For Taiwan, a nation that has encountered numerous hardships in the regional economic integration process, the fact that the TPP has become a topic discussed at the APEC summit is a great opportunity falling into its lap.
Why is the Ma administration treating this issue like a hot potato? There are two reasons.
First, joining the TPP runs counter to Ma’s strategy of keeping Taiwan bound to China. Gradually turning Taiwanese independence into unification with China has always been at the center of his political outlook and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement is his greatest achievement. If Taiwan joins the TPP, it would delay and impede the ultimate fulfillment of Ma’s goal of unifying Taiwan with China.
Second, China has not agreed to join the TPP because Beijing sees it as the US’ return to Asia and its first step toward reclaiming dominance in the Asia-Pacific region in an attempt to fight the ASEAN Plus One (China) economic grouping directed by Beijing.
This is the reason China’s response to the TPP has been circumspect and cautious. If Beijing doesn’t give the go-ahead, then of course the Ma administration won’t dare act rashly.
Huang Tien-lin is a former presidential advisor.
Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat