In 2012, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said Taiwan would join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) within eight years.
Only now, after having procrastinated for two years, has he taken action toward that aim by ordering the Cabinet carry out the preparatory work necessary to seek membership in the TPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) next month.
He has also ordered former vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) form a group that the opposition parties will take part in to promote partnership among the public.
This flurry of activity is clearly related to the visit of Representative to the US King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) to Taipei last month.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) recently sent delegations to Tokyo and Seoul to observe the strategies Japan and South Korea adopted when negotiating the TPP, the RCEP and other free-trade agreements. The party’s China Affairs Committee is also expected to make its stance on the matter clear in an upcoming report.
The TPP and RCEP are more than international trade pacts. Beneath the surface, they are part of a political struggle between the US and China, the two major powers in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the DPP face pressure from Washington and Beijing, and it will be hard for them to keep things going just by making declarations. They each need to take concrete action and face up to their many challenges.
First, Taiwan will not be able to take part in the first round of TPP talks between 12 nations. Even if Taiwan were able to participate in the future, the rules of the game will have already been established and Taiwan will be at the mercy of the other participating countries, having to accept the high demands of total market liberalization and zero tariffs.
A few years ago, the Ma administration overlooked the importance of public opinion and communication with the legislature and decided unilaterally to ease the nation’s reopening to US beef imports, a move that badly damaged its reputation.
Last year, the service trade agreement signed with China was full of backroom deals.
Since TPP negotiations would involve the adoption of a confidentiality agreement, it is highly doubtful whether the Ma administration will be able to communicate honestly and openly with the opposition and industries that could be affected if Taiwan joins the trade group.
Second, Ma is now widely viewed as incompetent and as a lame duck president. At the end of this year, he will face the pressure of local elections.
It must be asked whether he really has what it takes to get involved in such a difficult task, or is he merely toying with the US and going to leave the real problems to whoever succeeds him?
If Washington demands that Taiwan open up its pork market in exchange for entry into the TPP, would the Ma administration have the guts to make such a promise?
After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assumed office for the second time, he used his strong public support to quell domestic opposition to the TPP by leading his party in two landslide victories in the Diet. At the same time, he sang the same tune as US President Barack Obama. In February last year, he signed a guarantee for five sensitive industries, assuring that they would not be liberalized if Japan joins the TPP.
Despite this, US-Japanese negotiations on the TPP ground to a halt last month.