US senator and former vice presidential candidate Joseph -Lieberman has called on the administration of US President Barack Obama to negotiate a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Taiwan.
“If any nation has done what we hope countries will do — it is Taiwan,” he said.
A Democrat turned independent, Lieberman was delivering the annual B.C. Lee Lecture on “US Policy in the Asia-Pacific” on Wednesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
He said the US needed — in addition to military measures — an ambitious and strategically minded forward-looking trade policy for the Asia-Pacific region.
“While countries in the region are eager to enjoy the opportunities created by China’s growth, they also worry about growing over-dependent on China’s trade and business,” he said.
The strategic balance these countries seek, he said, was not only military, but also economic.
“And that’s the balance that they seek from us,” said Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “In this respect, it is to the credit of President Obama that he changed his initial opposition to the [South] Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and really worked hard to secure its passage.”
“But the fact remains that the US has not yet signed a single free-trade agreement during this administration,” he said.
According to one recent analysis cited by Lieberman, more than 300 trade agreements have either been concluded or are now being negotiated in the Asia-Pacific region and none of them involve the US.
“That is wrong. It is unacceptable,” he said, adding: “More is required.”
“In particular, I think it is time for Washington to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Taiwan. There’s an odd irony here. Taiwan’s trade relations with mainland China are now arguably more free than their trade relations with the United States,” he said.
The senator, who plans to retire next year, said that Washington should also conclude a bilateral investment treaty with India and actively explore a free-trade agreement with Japan. Rupert -Hammond-Chambers, president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, said later that Lieberman’s statement was significant in that it raised the issue of a Taiwan free-trade agreement as “important.”
However, “it is not relevant in regards to the next 14 months. I do not see Obama embracing FTAs at this juncture of his term in office,” Hammond-Chambers said. “He may launch an FTA process in his second term, but I’d bet on his sticking with the underwhelming Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Taiwan isn’t a member of either.”
“If a Republican is elected president, I expect a robust FTA policy and for Taiwan to be in the mix of countries considered,” Hammond-Chambers said.
Gerrit van der Wees, senior political adviser with the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), was more optimistic.
“I think Lieberman’s statement is highly significant. He is a senior voice in the US Senate,” he said.
Lieberman, who retains close ties to the Democratic Party, said: “In our foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States must never shy from standing by our values.”
He said that the US’ leadership in the world was at its best when Washington was not just pursuing commercial or security interests, but when it was rooted in national values and principles such as democracy, rule of law and human rights.
The major problem or hurdle in pursuing a free-trade agreement with Taiwan, he said, was the perception in Washington that it would adversely affect relations with China.
“We don’t want to upset their sensitivity,” Liberman said. “But — and I am going to speak simplistically now — one of the things that I have found in my time in Washington is that in more ways than one might imagine, you can fashion your foreign policy in the same way you would want to fashion your personal relations with people.”
“I find that when I have a disagreement with someone, including a colleague in the Senate, the best thing to do is not to tiptoe around the colleague and not talk about the disagreement because we both know it’s there,” he said. “It is best to talk about it and say: ‘Sorry pal, I owe John or whatever his name is, because John has been with me politically for a long time and we agree on a lot of stuff and so I have to go with him.’”
“We are committed by law and we believe in the rule of law. The Taiwan Relations Act establishes a clear framework for our relations with Taiwan, not in our opinion in a way that should damage our relations with China,” Lieberman said. “I think we should be honest.”
Lieberman said that Taiwan had developed a democratic political system and a market-based economy.
“I just come back to the irony that struck me as I was preparing my remarks for today. It’s quite a remarkable statement that Taiwan has actually freer trade relations with China than it does with us,” he said. “Heavens, that’s a ridiculous result. The result of our own hypersensitivity.”
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