Written by Tian He and Michael Magcamit.
Image credit: 12.03 總統接見「日本台灣交流協會會長大橋光夫」by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
Taiwan faced multiple challenges on the eve of its application to join the CPTPP. First, cross-strait relations have deteriorated since the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government took office in 2016; with Tsai Ing-wen leading Taiwan, China has abandoned the so-called diplomatic ceasefire that had existed during the Kuomintang’s (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou administration from 2008 to 2016.
In Beijing’s view, Tsai’s inaugural address failed to publicly affirm Taiwan’s adherence to the 1992 consensus that China has hailed as the primary basis for sustaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Since then, Beijing has progressively penalised the independence-leaning DPP government by pursuing Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic allies. As of now, Taiwan has just 14 diplomatic allies, mostly small Caribbean states and Pacific Island countries.
Taiwan is becoming increasingly isolated in the regional economy. The virtual signing of the RCEP on 15 November 2020 was a milestone for Asia’s regional economic integration. Although it is debatable whether the RCEP is a Chinese-led initiative, China is undoubtedly a significant player capable of shaping regional economic rules. Taiwan was excluded from this major trade deal despite being a technology powerhouse and an important trading nation that has spurred Asia’s integration with the world economy in the post-war period. Taiwan’s main regional economic competitor, South Korea, is far ahead of Taiwan regarding regional integration. It is believed that South Korea has free trade agreements (FTAs) with around three-quarters of regional economies.
Under these circumstances, the CPTPP can be an opportunity for the Tsai administration to overcome its diplomatic isolation and revive the economy through deepening regional economic integration. Accordingly, Tsai has stressed the importance of the trade pact, stating that joining the CPTPP would strengthen Taiwan’s key strategic and economic position by further integrating the island-state with the rest of the world.
However, Taiwan’s proposal to join the CPTPP faces significant challenges. This is not for lack of effort on its part but due to Beijing’s fierce opposition to its proposal. Upon learning in advance of Taiwan’s plan to join the CPTPP, China filed its own application six days earlier. The current administrative structure of the CPTPP allows any member to veto an application from a prospective member and, therefore, gives China a legitimate tool to thwart Taiwan’s application.
The Chinese government has strongly opposed Taiwan’s ongoing bid to join the CPTPP. Even before Taiwan’s application was filed, Zhu Fenglian, Deputy Director of the Information Bureau of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, stated that Taiwan’s participation in regional economic cooperation must be based on the one-China principle. Accordingly, any agreement with a diplomatic partner should not be framed as an official government-to-government agreement and must be stripped of connotations of sovereignty. China’s opposition later intensified when Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department, remarked that China would firmly oppose Taiwan’s participation in any official agreement or organisation.
As Japan took the driver’s seat after the US withdrawal, the DPP has hoped to rely on its good relations with Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration to promote its membership. Indeed, Japan, alongside other CPTPP members, including New Zealand, Singapore, and Australia, has expressed its support for Taiwan’s application to counter China’s disproportionate influence over regional trade and security.
Major Concerns that Influence Taiwan’s Bid
Thus far, two factors have significantly affected Taiwan’s bid to join the CPTPP. Firstly, the democratic nature of Taiwan’s political system is favoured by countries that welcome Taiwan’s admission to CPTPP. In other words, Taiwan’s democratic system has made it an attractive partner for economic cooperation. For example, an Australian parliamentary committee has expressed support for Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP trade bloc and is also advocating an FTA between Canberra and Taipei. Such an agreement would be beneficial to Australia in the fields of energy, agriculture, education and pandemic control, the committee said. In addition, a bilateral FTA would also allow the Australian government to learn from Taiwan about countering disinformation campaigns and building capacity against cyberattacks.
Secondly, China’s political economy is also of major concern for several existing CPTPP members who question the country’s state-dominated market economy and past practices. Australia’s trade minister has openly opposed China’s bid to join the CPTPP until it can convince members of its ‘track record of compliance’ with the existing trade agreements and WTO commitments. Similarly, a spokesperson for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also stressed that New Zealand has always supported including economies willing to meet the high standards of the CPTPP. Meanwhile, Singapore’s response has been more ambiguous. Although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recognises the economic significance of China, he also stressed that his government would welcome China if it could ‘meet the standards’.
Despite these two favourable factors, Taiwan’s bid to join the CPTPP is still an uphill battle in the context of Chinese opposition. The current situation requires Taiwan to demonstrate what it can bring to the table, given the huge potential economic benefits the existing members can gain from China’s accession. This is what the Tsai administration has been trying to accomplish since the launch of the New Southbound Policy (NSP) in 2016. Designed to reduce Taipei’s dependence on Beijing, the NSP is Tsai’s regional strategy for cultivating new ties with countries across South and Southeast Asia and Oceania. Despite Tsai’s outlook for regional economic integration, the state’s economic agenda faces enormous political opposition from the mainland. Note that a prerequisite for the Tsai government’s effective NSP implementation is cross-strait stability, as Taiwan can only deepen its integration with ASEAN members and India if China does not interfere. Yet one question prevails: how can the DPP build a good and reliable relationship with the mainland without sacrificing its interests and its own self in the process? As it stands, this issue is proving to be a major hurdle that the DPP must navigate cautiously to achieve its economic, political and strategic goals in the coming years.
A good case to illustrate how the One-China policy affects Beijing’s decision to welcome Taiwan’s participation in a regional economic pact is the launch of the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). On 22 May 2022, the White House National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, announced that Taiwan had not been invited to join the IPEF. But, again, the logic of geopolitics is clear: as the US seeks to reshape the Indo-Pacific region through economic means, the White House does not want IPEF to be seen as an anti-China entity dedicated to containing Beijing.
The Lurking Sovereignty Trap
As Taiwan continues to fight for its space at the CPTPP table, it must also confront the lurking ‘sovereignty trap’. Note that while Taiwan’s current WTO membership and bilateral FTAs are pivotal to its continued existence in international society, such agreements are not premised on its legal statehood. Previous experiences have shown that success in ascending to the WTO and concluding bilateral FTAs with few non-diplomatic partners does not necessarily secure Taiwan’s long-standing goal of being recognised as a legitimate sovereign entity. On the contrary, by conceding to Beijing’s framing of Taiwan’s international trade engagements as extensions of Chinese domestic affairs, the Taiwanese government might be unwittingly giving credence to the one-China rhetoric and abetting the sinicisation of cross-Strait relations.
Clearly, Taiwan’s motives for pursuing these trade agreements are not only driven by its desire to be recognised as a functioning sovereign state but also to establish and assert its unique – i.e., ‘non-Chinese’ – identity. Viewed this way, the CPTPP presents another strategic opportunity for the DPP administration to simultaneously revitalise a unique Taiwanese identity and galvanise regional support for greater sovereign recognition. Indeed, for small, ‘illegitimate’ states like Taiwan, FTAs could be a matter of life and death. As such, Taiwan must seek every opportunity to increase its chances of being accepted into the CPTPP.
Tian He is a research fellow in the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.
Michael Magcamit is a lecturer in Security Studies in the School of History Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.
This article was published as part of a special issue on “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”