Late last month, the US Congress passed the Trade Promotion Authority — also known as the US president’s “fast track” authority — and the Trade Adjustment Assistance program: Both legislations are connected to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
With the passage of these laws, the possibility that the content of the TPP could be finalized by the end of the year increased dramatically. Judging from how long it normally takes for this kind of free-trade agreement to take effect, the next Taiwanese president to be elected next year will immediately be faced with the question of whether the nation should join the TPP, and if it should, then how.
Another issue that will face the new president will be the question of how to handle the challenge of any controversies that may result from the TPP.
However, even though the TPP negotiation process has received a lot of attention and triggered a high degree of controversy in North America, China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe, most Taiwanese media outlets treat the pact as the centerpiece of the US’ attempt to strengthen its position in the Pacific.
This is a superficial viewpoint. Even worse, aside from the fact that the government and the opposition use more or less the same economic slogans, it is next to impossible to find any differences in their view of the trade pact.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has long been a lame-duck president, has repeatedly said that the cross-strait service trade agreement is not as hard to join as the TPP, and during his recent trip to the Americas, he stressed Taiwan’s determination to actively seek membership in the TPP.
By comparison, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is also the party’s presidential candidate and generally believed to be the candidate with the highest chances of winning the Jan. 16 election, has revealed a view that is not all that different from Ma’s statements about Taiwan’s participation in the TPP during her visit to the US, in letters to international media outlets and even during her meeting with former US vice president Dan Quayle, who has long been active in investment circles.
As long as one pays attention to the current international situation and the dynamics of related domestic issues, it is not very difficult to figure out that the TPP is bound to penetrate the Taiwanese market in various ways: tax measures, financial services, investment controls, state-owned enterprises, agricultural development, food safety, public health, environmental protection, labor rights, government procurement, e-commerce, the extension of copyright and patent protection periods, product labeling, methods of obtaining patents for pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, freedom of information, solutions to disputes, etc.
These issues will all make quite an impact on Taiwan. When dealing with the overwhelming influence of the TPP, it seems that the ruling and opposition parties think that their only political responsibility is to provide economic and trade slogans, but is this true?
Considering the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) consistent position against any substantive, clause-by-clause examination of external economic and trade accords such as the cross-strait service agreement, the likelihood that it would change its mind is next to zero.
During the Sunflower movement, the DPP took a position supportive of the movement and in opposition to the non-transparent cross-strait service agreement. Yet when it comes to the TPP, the party avoids any discussion about the fact that most parties seem to believe that it is the US’ largest non-transparent trade agreement in history and that the TPP negotiations have caused a lot of controversy and criticism both in the US and in the international community for its lack of transparency.
In the end, the DPP will be unable to avoid the necessity of proposing concrete policies to respond to the aforementioned impact that the TPP will have on Taiwan domestically.
Many people, such as Nobel laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, have often criticized the TPP, saying that it is reducing the governments’ ability to protect the national economy and public interests among other things.
That raises the question of how Taiwan, if it becomes a member state of the accord, will manage to balance long-term public welfare policy controls with welfare measures.
In other words, the TPP is by no means just an economic issue, but rather a litmus test of fairness and justice.
Beyond the fact that Taiwan holds a strategic location in Asia, which is in fact of national security concern, another question is whether the DPP, which is anticipating victory in next year’s presidential election, intends to use the process of obtaining TPP membership as a means to drastically transform the structure of Taiwan’s industrial sector, social welfare policy, talent flow, legal system and more.
If this is the case, where should the capital required for this transformation come from, and what would be the direction of such restructuring and the concrete steps to implement them? How would they be able to strike a balance between the related costs and the benefits of this restructuring process?
For example, anyone who is willing to examine some of the content from the TPP draft text that has been exposed by the whistle-blowing Web site Wikileaks will find that the text’s intellectual property rights chapter — which covers patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and many broad, controversial provisions — would have a negative impact on values such as human rights, fairness and justice.
The DPP will be faced with tough challenges keeping to election slogans such as participatory democracy, fair distribution, social justice and an innovation-driven economy.
Therefore, instead of hosting carnival-like events to promote the idea of an innovation economy, the DPP should clearly and seriously tell young people why it is absolutely necessary that Taiwan joins the TPP, and the extent to which the trade agreement is hiding obstructions to freedom of information and opportunities for innovation.
It should also tell them how the next president will go about resolving these issues in an effective manner.
Liu Ching-yi is a professor in the College of Social Sciences at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Zane Kheir
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