The Rivalry Between Mainland China and Taiwan: How They View Each Other’s Application to Join the CPTPP

Written by Liqiao Guo.

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The Taiwan issue is an escalating hot topic in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. The fact that both sides across the Taiwan Strait apply to join the CPTPP almost simultaneously is undoubtedly one of their wrestling arenas. Understanding and respecting each other’s intentions and demands is the cross-strait people’s expected way to resolve misunderstandings and keep the rivalry under control and is a meaningful step to avoid repeating the tragedy happening in Eastern Europe. 

This article clarifies how the mainland and Taiwan view each other’s applications and tries to find the similarities and differences by addressing three vital questions. First, what are the motivations for both sides, respectively? Second, Who and why do they think they can finally join? Third, what would the final result be and its impact on cross-strait relations and the Asian-Pacific region’s economic order? This research details some of the essential official statements and academic contributions to the overall debate on both sides. Although I primarily draw on official statements and academic contributions to elucidate the discussion, I also consider newspaper articles, mainly because they provide an insight into an influential and growing antagonistic perspective. 

Motivations: “Troublemaker or Fake Move”?

According to discourse analysis, it is not difficult to find that most of the opinions from the mainland believe that although the DPP authorities have proposed to join by a low-profile adopting the previous case as the “Separate Customs Territory of TPKM”, it is still regarded as a “troublemaker” by the mainland because the CPTPP is an international organisation involving sovereign states. Legally, whether a separate customs territory can join or not depends on the authorisation of its sovereign state. It is apparent that DPP authorities would not seek permission from Beijing.

Besides, Taiwan authorities attribute the failure encountered when participating in international activities to multi-layered pressure from the mainland. Even if it fails to join this time, the DPP can blame the mainland and incite hatred and anti-China sentiments to ease the pressure of public opinion on the ineffectual administration. In addition, Tsai Ing-wen authorities have been interested in joining the club since 2016. The mainland unexpectedly submitted the application before Taiwan, which is unacceptable to the DPP authorities. Therefore, in the view of the Tsai Ing-wen authorities, they must take some measures to certify that they are trying to fulfil their campaign promises even though they know the application will probably not succeed without permission from the mainland. 

Given that CPTPP is a high-standard trade agreement in many aspects, it is tough for the mainland to meet all the requirements to join successfully in a brief time. So, Taipei regards this unexpected application as merely a “fake move”. It is speculated the mainland proclaims to join when the preparations are not ready because its real goal is to prevent Taiwan from joining. However, Yen, Huai-Shing argues that Beijing has a more long-term consideration, which is to become the dominant state in the Asia-Pacific economy. In other words, blocking Taiwan’s participation would simply be a bonus. The realistic goal for Beijing is to promote internal economic system reform by trying to join the CPTPP. However, the stubborn resistance by large vested interest groups makes it difficult to start internal reform. By contrast, the stimulus of external factors may be the only way to change the economic system. 

Rivalry: Beijing VS Taipei

On the issue of who can successfully join, academics and politicians in the mainland have adopted a consistent attitude, believing that Taiwan, as a part of China, has no right to join. Although Taiwan is closer to the requirements than the mainland in some respects, it does not mean Taiwan can join first. It cannot also expect to get an “entry ticket” by making considerate compromises to win the support of the U.S. and Japan. Because these countries will only provide limited support in diplomatic discourse instead of staunch support considering their vast economic interests and diplomatic relations with Beijing, especially America, which is not even a member state. Additionally, joining CPTPP requires the consent of all member states. Moreover, the global times holds that the more Taiwan politicises this matter, the more countries oppose its application. 

Due to the propaganda of hostile consciousness and the reality of long-term rivalry, there is no doubt that policymaking communities in Taiwan hold a negative attitude towards the mainland’s application. Policymakers are worrying that the mainland’s joining will threaten Taiwan’s joining. However, scholars’ opinions vary, including positive and negative attitudes. While such views may be exceptionally provocative as far as the mainland is concerned, these mirror the debate across the Taiwan strait that Taipei has always regarded Beijing as an equal individual rather than the central government, which means Taiwan has equal rights to join any international organisation. In other words, Taiwan authorities insist that Beijing’s entry should not exclude all possibilities of Taipei’s request to join.

However, this claim could only be an unrealistic fantasy and a pure statement limited by cross-strait relations and international reality. Therefore, Taipei attributes the failure encountered when participating in international activities to multi-layered pressure from Beijing and point out the fact that the laws and regulations of Beijing do not conform to international practices, implying that it would be more difficult for Beijing to join than Taipei. 

After reviewing most of the possible viewpoints, this paper finds that both sides believe that the other side has not satisfied all the criteria and persist that itself has the legal and political rights to join the club. It is noteworthy that “consensus decision” and high standards are the common obstacles for both sides to join. Furthermore, compared with Taiwan, the mainland’s giant economic volume is an advantage, whereas the deterioration of its relations with the member states is a disadvantage. However, the final result will be extremely evident if we look back at the case of the WTO. Although Taipei received the support of the U.S., the most influential member, the WTO still had to make political concessions to reality and finally adopt the “mainland first and then Taiwan” policy. In addition, the current cross-strait situation and the Sino-American comparison of their strengths are not the same. 

The Best Possible Result and its Impacts

There are no more than four results regarding the applications. These are “both in”, “the mainland in, Taiwan out”, “the mainland out, Taiwan in”, and “both out”, respectively. Regarding the influence of different results, there is no doubt that the first one will have the most significant impact on cross-strait relations and the order in the Asia-Pacific region. Regarding the possibility of different results, the first and the fourth results are highly probable since both sides’ applications are currently being discussed as one case by CPTPP. Furthermore, there has been a precedent of cross-strait joining the WTO, and the cross-strait economies are essential to CPTPP members. There is also a similar view that both sides will join, which should be a more pragmatic expectation. Therefore, this article assumes that the first result has the highest probability and is the final result. The following analysis takes the first result as the cause variable.

Based on the first result, the rules of the CPTPP will apply to both sides. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is that most products will receive zero-tariff preferential access to each other’s markets under the CPTPP framework. It means that the level of openness of the cross-strait market and the degree of service industry and personnel exchanges will be far greater than that of the ECFA and CSSTA. Beijing expects closer economic, and people-to-people exchanges across the strait, which is the cornerstone of Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan.

Significantly, it is conducive to increasing the sense of economic gain among people and, in turn, gaining the support of non-government forces, especially in Taiwan, and recognising the one-China principle. For Taipei, preferential treatment must be implemented equally. The deflating reality for policymakers is that the dual-track model, which was not open to the mainland but open to other members under the WTO structure, may not work anymore. Taipei must significantly raise the current economic and trade restrictions on the mainland from below the WTO standard to beyond the WTO’s CPTPP threshold. 

In reality, this will have an unprecedented impact on cross-strait economic integration. The ever-stopped negotiations on the CSSTA may continue and be in effect soon. In the view of neoliberals, the sensitivity and vulnerability of bilateral relations will become more and more evident with the increase in trade and cooperation. Then, the trend of the economic interdependence of both sides across the strait will become closer. Any side intending to withdraw unilaterally will suffer huge losses, making each other rely on each other. There is no doubt that cross-strait economic integration will also promote the integration of the Asia-Pacific economy. However, whether economic integration will spill over into the political realm to facilitate the reunification of China is still an important topic for further observation.

Liqiao Guo, Visiting PhD Fellow at the European Research Centre on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), Tübingen University, Germany. PhD Candidate at Graduate Institute for Taiwan Studies, Xiamen University, P.R. China. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

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