The influence of APEC has been on the decline, but the US’ recent breakthrough following several years of promoting the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) increased the importance of the annual APEC summit in Japan earlier this month.
Although the TPP was not developed within the APEC framework, APEC member countries treated it as a possible option when discussing the feasible directions of the proposed free-trade area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). Naturally, Taiwanese are concerned about whether Taiwan will be able to join the TPP and end its exclusion from the current wave of free-trade agreements (FTA).
The TPP was first proposed by the US in 1998. In the beginning, it was driven by economic motives and Washington hoped it would be able to attract the Asian APEC members to the free-trade group as soon as possible. This did not happen at the time and by 2006, it was merely a minor free-trade area consisting of four small economies: Brunei, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand, known as the Pacific-4 (P-4).
However, regionalism has continued to grow in East Asia, leading to greater regional cooperation, such as ASEAN Plus One, ASEAN Plus Three and the East Asia Summit. Meanwhile, China’s regional influence is increasing and might now have surpassed that of Japan.
Based on its own strategic interests, the US has begun to plan for a “return” to Asia to fill the power vacuum that resulted after former US president George W. Bush concentrated diplomatic resources on his “war on terror,” or to actively work to maintain a balance in the region as Asian countries raise concerns over China’s rise. Obviously, the TPP is becoming the most effective tool for Washington to implement this economic and trade tactic.
After the US announced that it would start TPP negotiations with the P-4 in 2008, Australia, Peru and Vietnam, followed by Malaysia last month, also joined TPP talks. A total of nine countries are now engaging in TPP talks and the first round is expected to conclude by the next APEC summit, scheduled for late next year in the US. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Canada and Mexico have all expressed their willingness to join in the talks. The completion of the talks for these countries or a second expansion phase are expected in 2015, in step with the pace of East Asian economic integration. It will include all other APEC member countries by 2020 if everything goes to plan. By that time, it will have integrated East Asian regionalism and indirectly realized an FTAAP under the APEC framework.
The above is a description of how the US wants to use the TPP to deconstruct East Asian regionalism. Whether it will achieve its goals will of course depend on a number of variables.
For example, US President Barack Obama has emphasized that the TPP will be a high--quality, 21st century trade agreement with an extensive membership. “High quality” refers to a high degree of free trade, as most industries will be included in the scope of negotiation, while member countries may have to eliminate all tariffs or open their markets completely within 10 years.
Clearly, it will be difficult for Japan to join the group if it continues to maintain its protectionist agricultural policies. In addition, Obama seems to have more room to move in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs. US labor unions and a Democrat-dominated US Congress have always opposed FTAs and this may restrict the US’ deployment in the Asia-Pacific region.
Since China’s regional advantage is concentrated in East Asia and especially in ASEAN Plus Three, it has adopted a defensive role toward Asia-Pacific regionalism. Beijing is also aware that the expansion of the TPP is part of the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy and is therefore unlikely to express its stance too early. China is therefore likely to wait and see how things develop.
As for Taiwan, the TPP does have an open clause and seems to welcome all APEC members or other economies with similar views to join. However, membership requires the approval of all existing members, making Taiwanese membership difficult.
Finally, the TPP is Washington’s grand strategy for its Asia-Pacific deployment. Even if Beijing, a complex factor, is excluded, Taiwan is not the US’ first priority at a time when the economic and trade order in the Asia-Pacific is being realigned. Thus, even in the best conditions, Taiwan is not likely to join in the near future, but rather at the time of a future third expansion. According to this analysis, that would be after 2015 at the earliest.
Honigmann Hong is an assistant professor in the China studies program at National Tsing Hua University.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG