Taiwanese and US officials met in Washington on Thursday for a day-long seminar in what could be the first stage in a long process of hammering out a free-trade agreement (FTA).
The seminar at the Brookings Institution was arranged by Richard Bush, who left his job as head of the American Institute in Taiwan in January to become the director of Brookings' Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.
The nearly nine-hour seminar featured 18 presentations by officials and trade specialists, in what is expected to form the basis of future efforts to bring Taipei and Washington together in an FTA.
The meeting was closed to the press.
While Taiwan has eagerly sought an FTA, which would solidify both economic and political ties between the two sides, the George W. Bush administration has been leery about it.
It is believed that Thursday's seminar is the first time official representatives from both sides sat down together to discuss the issue, although the seminar was a private event.
Attendees from Taipei included Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Steven Chen; Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) chief Chen Chien-jen (程建人), Chunghua Institution for Eco-nomic Research Chairman Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), Liu Da-Nien of the institute, Chan Mignon of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research and Ko Chen-en of the Taiwan Think Tank.
US participants included Assistant US Trade Representative for North Asian Affairs Wendy Cutler; David Spooner, chief USTR textile negotiator; US International Trade Commission operations director Robert Rogowsky and Tim Skud, deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for regulatory, tariffs and trade enforcement.
In addition to the seminar, Shen and his delegation are expected to meet with US officials on trade issues and with others in Washington before leaving this weekend.
Administration officials have been telling Taiwanese officials and legislators for several months that an FTA would be delayed because of existing trade disputes between the two and because of Chinese opposition to such an agreement.
TECRO's Chen told the Legislative Yuan during a recent trip to Taipei that work on an FTA could not start until 2004 at the earliest, depending on resolution of dis-agreements on Taiwan's compliance with its WTO commitments and on China's views.
Even after preparations and negotiations start, it could take many years before a deal is finalized. Washington and Chile just this week entered into a FTA after 10 years of talks, although officials here do not think a Taiwan FTA would take quite that long.
"There are still a significant number or bilateral trade disputes" between Taiwan and Washington, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-ROC Business Council, a private business group that promotes bilateral trade.
"In principle, a US-Taiwan FTA is a good idea, but Taiwan has some major roadblocks in its trade relations with the US that are holding up this process. And, until they are addressed, it's going to continue that way," he said. He called Chen's 2004 timeline "very realistic."
While the administration has not been enthusiastic, congressional free-trade supporters have been pushing for an agreement.
Last January, the then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus, and the ranking Republican, Senator Charles Grassley, urged the administration to have the International Trade Commission write a report on the impact of an FTA with Taiwan.