Taiwan and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: The Political Dimension

Editor’s Note: This inaugural 

East Asia Policy Paper

was originally published in October 2013 as a working paper. Updates to the paper have since been made.

The task seems insurmountable. The various obstacles to Taiwan’s becoming a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are indeed daunting. The disciplines that TPP imposes are demanding. Resistance to them from domestic interests is certain. And then there is China, which opposes the idea of Taiwan acting independently in the international system. Some might say that for Taiwan to make a play for TPP and lose because of Chinese obstruction is worse than not trying at all. That is, even if the rewards of being a member of the TPP club―perhaps the most exclusive in the global economy―are clear, the costs of even trying to join seem excessive. If Las Vegas or Macau bookmakers took bets on the chances of TPP success for Taiwan, they would surely be very long.

How to shorten these odds? Consider the metaphor of a safe with a combination lock. Essentially, the locking mechanism of this kind of safe is made up of a set of wheels called a “wheel pack.” The combination dial sequentially engages the wheels with a series of turns in alternating directions and of varying numbers of times around the dial. If each turn has been done correctly, the wheels line up in a way that disables the lock and allows safe to open. But the turns have to be precisely accurate, with the right number of turns around the dial and to the exact final point. Any small mistakes and the whole process must begin again. This is the challenge that Taiwan faces, but the number of steps it must successfully accomplish is greater than the number of wheels in the standard combination safe. It must take these steps in the correct order, for it will be their cumulative effect that opens the door to TPP membership. Finally, Taipei is not always in total control of its destiny. For some “wheels” it is others, not Taiwan, who are “spinning the dial.” Taipei is dependent on the decisions of these others but has no say in them.

So what are the “wheels” that must align for Taiwan to open the locked safe of TPP membership? The following are the steps that I believe must occur, listed in what seems to be the proper sequence. Obviously, removing Chinese political opposition is one of those wheels but it is not the only one, nor is it the first one. None of these steps is easy, and some are not under Taiwan’s control, either wholly or partially. But if these steps occur and occur in the proper order, the odds of Taiwan’s membership become less daunting.

Step One: The twelve countries that are party to the current TPP negotiations must complete an agreement.

At least rhetorically, the countries currently participating in the TPP negotiations believe they are addressing issues that are key to a healthy international economy in the twenty-first century. They appear to be negotiating seriously to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. But it is conceivable that finding solutions to these problems may simply be too ambitious. If the twelve countries are not able to reach consensus on new rules, then Taiwan will not have a TPP option. Let us assume, however, that the twelve current countries will reach a TPP agreement and that Taipei can plan for the best, even as it prepares for the worst.