The Taiwan-U.S. Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue took place on November 20, the first bilateral economic talk since 2016.
In the past, the Taiwan-U.S. economic dialogues were held under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreements, or TIFA, which was signed in 1997. The agreement serves as a framework for the U.S. to resolve trade issues with other nations or regions and paves the way for bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
Taiwan-U.S. TIFA talks have been held 10 times. However, the talks have been suspended since October, 2016 following Taiwan’s bans on U.S. meat products. In 2020, after the Tsai administration revealed a new policy to lift import restrictions on certain U.S. pork and beef products, both parties are once again at the negotiation table.
In the past, Taiwan-U.S. TIFA talks were usually led by Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) while the U.S. counterpart was the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), with Assistant U. S. Trade Representatives (AUSTR) as chief negotiator and later headed by Deputy United States Trade Representative.
USTR is the main organization responsible for the negotiations over economic and trade agreements with other countries and regional economic blocs. But in recent years, USTR has not been actively involved in Taiwan-U.S. economic/trade talks. In contrast, the State Department is stepping in to promote Trump’s economic policy which is aimed to de-couple from China by rearranging non-red supply chains. As such, the State Department is increasing its engagement with Taiwan. In this sense, it can be said that the State Department is more concerned with national security while USTR cares more about economic interests when it comes to trade talks with other nations. Given the enormous trade volume between U.S.-China, USTR of course is focusing a lot more on U.S.-China trade talks than U.S.-Taiwan TIFA dialogues.
Pompeo intends to end strategic ambiguity approach
The U.S.-Taiwan EPP Dialogue took place at an awkward time when Mr. Trump lost the bid for re-election while Mr. Biden has yet to be sworn in. A smooth transition of power is undermined as Trump has refused to concede his defeat. As such, many are worried whether the EPP Dialogue and the MOU will be recognized by the Biden administration. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is signed in the talks, which is the same as a letter of intent rather than a formal agreement.
The U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s recent remarks on Taiwan have drawn special attention. In a radio interview on November 12, he said “Taiwan has not been a part of China.” He said the Reagan administration laid out the policy which recognized that “Taiwan has not been a part of China.” And the U.S.-- under both (Republican and Democratic) administrations, has adhered to the policy for three-and-a-half decades. He said Reagan made “six assurances” to Taiwan in 1982. The spokesman of the State Department specifically referred to the “six assurances” when commenting on Pompeo’s remarks.
The fifth assurance, considered most crucial, is that “the U.S. will not change a long-standing policy regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.” That is, the U.S. has never recognized China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. Instead, it has only “recognized” China’s such claim. After the original text of the “six assurances” was declassified in August 2020, Washington has made clear the importance of the document, elevating its status to the same level as three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués and US’ Taiwan Relations Act. The move is intended to shift the traditional policy toward Taiwan of strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.
Douglas H. Paal, a former U.S. representative in Taipei as the director of the American Institute in Taiwan and Vice President for Studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accused Pompeo’s remarks on Taiwan’s status, saying he defied Washington’s traditional approach by establishing Taiwan’s status as “undecided.”
Obviously, Pompeo’s claim that “Taiwan has not been a part of China” is intended to shift the approach of strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, which the new administration is unlikely to reverse. Online media Axios reported Trump plans several new hard-line moves against China in the remaining weeks of his term. These moves are made in ways that may be difficult to reverse under the Biden administration.
Taiwan remains cautiously optimistic
In addition to the active moves by the State Department, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to visit Taiwan in early December to collaborate on issues including the Save our Seas initiative. He will be the third cabinet-level U.S. official to visit Taiwan in four months, after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary of State Keith Krach.
Taiwan is, of course, grateful to the Trump administration for its pro-Taiwan moves. But will the plans by Trump and Pompeo to draw a red line for the new administration work? It is not something that can be decided by their will. Taiwan has to remain cautiously optimistic about Pompeo’s latest remarks on Taiwan and Taiwan-U.S EPP Dialogue, refraining from expecting too much.
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