Tuesday, November 27, 2007

U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement Roundtable

Photo of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, which became the centerpiece
of a Sino-U.S. diplomatic tussle when it was not allowed to carry out a planned
visit to the port of Hong Kong this past Thursday and was forced to return to its
home port in Japan. Many family members of the sailors had traveled to
Hong Kong, looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with the crew.

Yesterday at the Sigur Center, the Asian Studies center within the international affairs school at the George Washington University, a panel discussion was held that featured guests from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO, Taiwan's officially 'unofficial' embassy in Washington) as well as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, two eminent Washington policy think-tanks.

The issue of the day was whether the United States and Taiwan should enter into serious negotiations and eventually finalize and enact a free trade agreement. The event began with a rather informative presentation by the director of TECRO's economic division, Mr. Francis Liang, who highlighted the many reasons why a Taiwan-U.S. FTA would be beneficial to the economies and populations of both countries involved. Thanks to the provision of extra copies of this presentation in paper form for audience members at the event, we are able to forward some of the more interesting facts and figures to you:
  • Taiwan has experienced an average annual growth in GDP of 7.8 % over the past half century, and currently engages in foreign trade to the tune of $437 billion U.S. dollars and is the second largest holder of Foreign Exchange Reserves in the world ($266 billion).

  • Taiwan produces 72% of the world's laptops, 79% of PDAs and 68% of LCD monitors. In the cover article of a May 2005 issue of Business Week, Bruce Einhorn referred to Taiwan as "the hidden center of the global economy."
  • In 2006, Taiwan was the United States' 9th largest trading partner, 11th largest export market, and the largest importer per capita of U.S. agricultural products. In the same year, the United States served as Taiwan's 3rd largest trading partner, second largest export market, and Taiwan's largest source of foreign direct investment. Taiwan-U.S. bilateral trade was worth $62 billion dollars last year.

In addition to hard facts and figures, Mr. Liang helped explain the current trade situation in the Pacific Rim and how this adds to the need for an FTA. Currently, major Pacific Rim players such as Japan, China, Korea, Singapore, and Australia are vigorously signing and seeking new free trade agreements in the region. If the United States doesn't work to improve its trade relations and hammer out agreements with its top East Asia/Pacific allies, it may get edged out of the trade game in the Pacific.

This is just a sampling of what Mr. Liang had to say. On the other hand, Philip Levy, a resident scholar at AEI, was rather hesitant about the prospects for TUFTA. Mr. Levy's major hang-up when it comes to this topic is the "China factor." To put it simply, he, like many other academics, government officials, and 'China hands' in the United States, is simply fraught with worry at the prospect of 'antagonizing' the government of China in any way whatsoever.

Levy argues that whatever benefit Taiwan gains by formalizing an FTA with the United States will be cancelled out by the drop in foreign investment that would presumably follow if the PRC government stepped up its threats, military activity, and the familiar sabre-rattling routine in general in response. According to his hypothesis, Taiwan would then be unable to reap the benefits of TUFTA and would only have caused greater threat to its very existence.

What we believe is overlooked in Levy's line of reasoning, is why the very idea of a Taiwan-U.S. Free Trade Agreement raises the hackles of any PRC government official or general in the PLA. By engaging in deeper trade relations with Taiwan, the United States would be affirming in a practical way its values-based alliance with Taiwan's government. Rather than increasing the likelihood of Chinese acts of aggression against Taiwan, this step would make it more difficult for China to recklessly threaten Taiwan without thereby antagonizing the United States!

Humanists and 'starry-eyed idealists' in the U.S. are already more likely to favor Taipei over Beijing due to our countries' common interests in democracy, human rights, civil freedom, etc. More cynical observers of American foreign policy on the other hand—who were probably thinking yadi-yadi-yada by the time they got to the end of the last sentence—would also be more unlikely to tolerate PRC aggression against Taiwan, as American economic interests would become increasingly tied to Taiwan's national interests.

Besides, as Mr. Tkacik touched upon in his usual fire-and-brimstone manner, what with all the recent news concerning ongoing Chinese involvement in human rights violations, faulty Chinese commercial imports and the snubbing of the United States Navy with the recent U.S.S. Kitty Hawk Thanksgiving Day incident (just to name a few), maybe its high time that the United States did engage in a little diplomatic antagonizing towards the PRC government.

Summarily, at the conclusion of a free trade agreement between Taiwan and the United States, American officials would perhaps reasonably be a bit on edge for fear of economic and political backlash from Beijing. More important however is that, from that point onward, every time officials in Beijing contemplated the forceful unification of Taiwan with China, they would worry more than ever about the prospects of antagonizing the country that represents China's largest export market and the world's sole remaining superpower.

It seems to us that, in terms of American foreign policy vis-a-vis Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, improving American trade relations with Taiwan using the vehicle of a Free Trade Agreement is one of the best moves that can be made within the even the most conservative definition of the status quo.


Robert said...

Thanks a lot for this article. I've been studying all the debates going on lately about the Taiwanese economy (good or bad?), including the possibility of a FTA between Taiwan and the US.

I appreciate you taking the time to detail the proceedings.

From where I stand right now, I see many years of threats from the other side of the straits. None are ever backed up with force, so I certainly don't think that's a valid reason to hesitate when it comes to an FTA with Taiwan.

....then again, I'm no expert.

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