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The help of a free-trade agreement

Taipei Times, Taiwan

The help of a free-trade agreement

By Nat Bellocchi

31 May 2007

For the next 10 months, the US and China will be following Taiwanese politics closely. Economic differences between political parties will be an issue — most importantly how they affect Taiwan’s political future. At the same time, Taiwan and China will be watching how the US pursues its geopolitical interests in relation to both of them.

It will take a long time to see how issues in China like economic growth and political reform will be resolved. But in regard to Taiwan, China is encouraging investment in China by Taiwanese industries, pressuring other countries to abandon political support of Taiwan despite the harm to themselves, and continues to expand its military capability aimed at Taiwan.

As Taiwan’s democracy has flourished, the country has naturally become more Taiwanese in its culture and identity. Still, conflict continues between those who want an independent Taiwanese identity and those who want eventual unification with China.

Of course, Taiwan’s future will depend on whether China continues to strengthen or stumbles. The coming elections might indicate what kind of country the Taiwanese would like to have, but how they are able to accomplish it will still be unclear.

With its many interests worldwide, the US relationship with Taiwan may remain relatively unchanged, despite the developments in Taiwan and China. The US continues to pressure Taiwan to strengthen its military security, but at the same time, ironically, it encourages Taiwan to invest more in the Chinese economy.

Experts worldwide are debating the future of China. Predictions range from China becoming a world-class superpower to China devolving into a large but relatively poor country. This sort of debate sometimes aids understanding but seldom has definitive results.

Most US policies regarding Taiwan can still be found in the testimony given to the House International Relations Committee on April 23, 2004. Then US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs James Kelly said that the US was opposed to unilateral change in the Taiwan Strait’s status quo — adding the words "as we define it."

This kind of rhetoric creates elbowroom for US policy.

China’s strategy remains an unbending definition of Taiwan as part of China while ignoring any dissent. As a result, Taiwan keeps telling the US that there is no change in the status quo, which carries different meanings on different sides and keeps China relatively happy.

The other part of the rhetorical jigsaw puzzle is the definition of "one China." While assuring China that there is only one China, the US is an ally of Taiwan. The US definition of "one China" is a combination of the three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

By accepting a policy of "one China," the US keeps China happy. The TRA states that the US should not support Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations. A subsequent statement from the executive branch says the US will not support Taiwan’s membership in organizations which only admit states. It also says the US is to resist using force or other forms of coercion — something China does constantly. The US Congress, which created the policies of the TRA, has been careless.

One of the problems in the US-Taiwan relationship has been a lack of dialogue. Doing this inevitably upsets China, especially if senior officials are openly involved.

As Taiwan has had problems keeping diplomatic information secret, the US-Taiwan relationship is a sensitive one that needs a different kind of dialogue.

China’s efforts to coerce countries and international organizations to block Taiwanese participation in the international community have intensified, undermining Taiwanese relations. The damage this coercion is doing to Taiwan is rarely talked about. It is clear that US commitment to averting coercion as suggested by the TRA has wavered.

There is something the US could do to help Taiwan, however, which China might find difficult to suppress: It is for the US to agree to Taiwan’s request for a free-trade agreement. It would be a good move for both the US and Taiwan, and may help revive the TRA, which hasn’t been adhered to.

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.