The Evolving Trade-agreement Scene

The American withdrawal from the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade block almost immediately after President Trump assumed office early this year left Taiwan without a concrete, compelling objective to work toward in its economic relationship with the United States. Until then, Taiwan had a clear focus – its hope that it would be able to join the TPP when the group opened membership in a second round, enabling Taiwan to avoid isolation within the regional trading arena. For Taiwan, TPP participation would have meant the equivalent of a free trade agreement (FTA) not only with the United States but with at least 11 other countries.

Since then, Taiwan has taken President Trump at his word that while he is adverse to multilateral trade agreements such as TPP, he welcomes “free, fair, and reciprocal” trade agreements negotiated on a bilateral basis. It appears that Washington is not yet in a position to act on that aim, however. Several top posts in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) remain unfilled, and U.S. negotiators are preoccupied with revamping the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, and possibly revisiting the U.S. FTA with South Korea (KORUS).

But Taiwan officials have repeatedly stated that when and if the United States is ready, Taiwan is eager to enter into a bilateral trade agreement with Washington. President Tsai Ing-wen has affirmed that view on numerous occasions, including her remarks at AmCham Taipei’s Hsieh Nien Fan banquet in April. The aspiration was also voiced by Vice President Chen Chien-jen when he spoke at the Chamber’s 2017 Annual General Meeting last month.

In the meantime, another possible avenue has opened up for eventual broader engagement by Taiwan with the regional trading community. Despite the American departure from the TPP, the other 11 original participants, led by Japan, have surprised many observers by showing their determination to stand by the agreement. On the sidelines of the recent APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Vietnam, representatives of the 11 announced plans to continue with the “core elements” of the TPP, now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). During the discussions leading up to the formation of CPTPP, the participating economies made clear their hope that the United States, recognizing the need to play a more active role in the Asia-Pacific for both economic and strategic reasons, would ultimately decide to rejoin the agreement.

The resuscitated TPP revives the possibility that Taiwan could join the group when it enlarges its membership, as is expected to happen within the next few years. Whether the goal is CPTPP membership or an FTA with the United States, however, Taiwan still has much to do to burnish its credentials for candidacy by demonstrating its commitment to transparency, accountability, and adherence to international practices in its regulatory regime.

Last year’s adoption of a 60-day public notice and comment period for new laws and regulations was an excellent start in that direction. Now further action is needed to ensure that the 60-day policy is broadly implemented, that it is well-used for genuine communication with stakeholders, and that other necessary reforms are adopted to modernize Taiwan’s regulatory structure.

There is no time to lose. The next several years will be crucial in determining whether Taiwan is marginalized economically or can enjoy a new burst of dynamic growth.

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