Last week, leaders at the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia, reiterated their pledge to put the WTO’s long-stalled Doha Round global trade talks back on track, but more attention was focused on a set of negotiations on the sidelines of the annual forum between nations aiming to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pact finalized by the end of the year.
The US-led TPP is an ambitious free-trade agreement, designed to speed up trade liberalization among the 12 economies within the Asia-Pacific region that represent about 40 percent of global trade. Once signed, the TPP may rejuvenate the global economy after trade has slowed across the world in recent years.
Will signing the TPP be an easy task for the participating countries, considering that some of them may face difficulties in making political decisions at home on sensitive issues — such as labor standards, environmental protection, currency control, tariffs, intellectual property rights and state-owned enterprises — not to mention the limited time frame?
Taiwan is not one of the TPP nations, but it is not a secret that this country desires to join the multinational free-trade bloc as strongly as it intends to be part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — another multinational agreement involving ASEAN and its six trading partners, including China, that is set to complete talks by 2015.
During his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry last week on the sidelines of the APEC forum, former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), representing President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) at this year’s summit, reiterated that the nation wants to join the TPP talks, but the US reportedly did not make any promises regarding Taiwan’s involvement, said Council for Economic Planning and Development Minister Kuan Chung-ming (管中閔), who served as the spokesman for the Taiwanese delegation to the summit.
It is understandable that the US may not want to complicate the ongoing TPP negotiations by adding a new member at this time and Washington may plan to focus first on signing a bilateral investment treaty with Taipei after the two sides resumed trade talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement in March, rather than starting anything else. Although TPP membership may be extended over time, the issue is not straightforward. Policymakers need to consider the best strategy; is it best to join TPP, RCEP, or both? The government must conduct a thorough assessment on whether the nation is ready to make concessions and compromises in order to avoid regional marginalization.
The controversial cross-strait service trade agreement provides a good example for why policymakers should not rush to sign deals without considering public opinion and the effect on industry. Moreover, the government must keep lawmakers, related industries and the public informed about the progress made in trade negotiations. Confidentiality is not an excuse for trade negotiators to avoid public scrutiny.
The president once said it might take Taiwan eight years more years join the TPP, but if more time is required to secure a high quality deal for Taiwan — not just for its trade partners — that does not sacrifice national interests, then patience is in order.