US President George W. Bush left Washington on Tuesday en route to the APEC forum summit meeting in Hanoi, where some analysts have speculated he plans to push the idea of an APEC-wide free trade agreement (FTA) that could include Taiwan.
If such an agreement comes to pass -- and US officials caution that it could take some time -- it would be the first time that Taiwan is included in such a regional trade liberalization scheme, and the first time it would be linked with China and the US in an FTA.
Over the past week, US officials have denied that Bush will have a specific proposal to make. US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, for instance, in a press briefing last week said only that the FTA "is a topic that we anticipate will be discussed in Hanoi," a theme repeated by other officials briefing reporters on Monday on the condition they do not be identified.
"We aren't talking about suddenly launching a negotiation for a free trade area of the Asia Pacific region," Schwab said. "I think over time we would hope to see that evolve and it's a good topic."
She also skirted a question about Taiwan's inclusion, referring only to a set of goals APEC adopted in 1994 vis-a-vis "a plan for trade liberalization among all the members of APEC."
Taiwanese officials in Washington are optimistic that Taiwan, as a full APEC member, would be included, despite expected opposition from China, another APEC member.
"There has been nothing mentioned [to suggest] that any member would be excluded. It shouldn't be, because otherwise it could not be called an Asia Pacific FTA," said John Deng (
An APEC Free Trade Agreement, or FTAAP as it has become known, would solve many of Taiwan's trade problems, which have been exacerbated by China's drive to isolate the nation economically and politically throughout Asia, Deng told the Taipei Times.
The FTAAP would allow Taiwan to have an FTA with as many countries as possible in face of these difficulties, and the agreement would cover all of Taiwan's main trading partners outside of Europe, Deng said.
There are two reasons why Bush wants to push for an FTAAP now, Deng said.
First is the collapse of the Doha round of global trade liberalization talks last summer.
"You need to continue to do something to promote trade stabilization and expand the US market," Deng said.
The second is that "FTA activities in Asia are really intensive now, such as with Japan's proposal of an ASEAN plus six [which would link the ASEAN with six other regional trade powers]. The US is not included in any of this. So the United States can see Asia as a growing market, the engine of the world economy for the next several years, and the US does not want to be excluded," Deng said.
Another reason why the US may be keen to promote an FTAAP is China's ambitious courting of ASEAN and other Asian countries to integrate their economies at the expense of both the US and Taiwan.
"I don't hear this from administration officials, but that is a presumption quite clear to everybody," Deng says.
US officials say it will take at least a year of preliminaries before APEC could begin to get to work on any FTA. One official, briefing the press on Monday, said that the first focus would be to decide what sort of analysis should be undertaken and what working groups needed to be established "to really understand what would need to be accomplished" to make an FTAAP a reality and to determine the benefits to APEC members.