With chances for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US any time soon appearing more and more remote, Taiwan may have to shift its energies toward working on individual trade agreements covering specific areas, officials of the Taiwan American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) said in Washington this week.
An AmCham delegation is in the US to discuss its latest "white paper" on Taiwan's economy and bilateral trade issues with US government officials, congressmen, think tanks and business groups.
In a press conference dominated by prospects for an FTA, AmCham president Tom Johnson and executive director Richard Vuylsteke noted that a key US trade law that has enabled Washington to sign several FTAs in recent years is due to expire next June.
The law, commonly known as "fast track authority," allows the administration to negotiate FTAs subject only to an up-or-down vote in Congress, preventing the lawmakers from amending any agreement to death as they did regularly before the law was enacted.
The AmCham officials conceded that there is hardly any chance that Taiwan can go through all of the difficult steps needed to nail down an FTA in the next 12 months.
Nevertheless, they said, Taiwan should continue to work on an FTA, since any accomplishments could be helpful when it wants to negotiate other trade pacts with the US later.
The FTA "is a useful tool to keep people focused," Vuylsteke said.
However, Johnson warned against focusing strictly on an FTA.
"We want to back away from a focus on FTA," Johnson said. "If the content of an FTA is really economic, if it's a series of bilateral agreements of other agreements, it still accomplishes the same goal," Johnson said.
"So I don't want the label to get in the way of the content," he said.
"If fast track runs out [without an FTA], it's still not wasted effort," because the trade disputes between Washington and Taipei still have to be resolved, Vuylsteke said.
The US business world has so far failed to weigh in in favor of an FTA, and the US Trade Representative (USTR) office has made it clear that it will not consider an FTA unless US businessmen push for it.
However, Taiwan understands that "this is about the economic package, and that it has to be put together so that the [US] business organizations can come in and say, `This is good,'" Vuylsteke said.
Looking at the bright side, the AmCham executives said that in the past six months, Taiwan has begun to recognize this. Johnson said that this change was the most important recent development in terms of Taiwan's official attitude toward the FTA, contrasting it with earlier times when the Taiwanese government emphasized the political and diplomatic aspects of an FTA.
This has apparently been received favorably by the USTR.
"The USTR made it very clear that these are not issues of sovereignty," Vuylsteke said. "It comes down to if Taiwan can show that this is economically beneficial between the US and Taiwan, and if it is economically beneficial to China. Then, it is a very strong case that might convince China not to oppose a US-Taiwan FTA as it had done in the past," Vuylsteke said.
The AmCham officials also stressed the need for direct cross-strait links to any FTA.
"We think that cross-strait links are essential for an FTA because without it, it skews the weight of the scales with American companies," Vuylsteke said.