Pacific trade pact row between Beijing and Taipei a dilemma for members

Separate applications to join the CPTPP have erupted into a war of words and a demand that the 11 member states pick sides
The self-ruled island is proposing to join under the same formulation used for its World Trade Organization membership

Teddy Ng in Hong Kong and Amber Wang in Beijing

24 Sep, 2021

A new battleground has opened up between Beijing and Taipei, with an escalating war of words over their separate bids to join a trans-Pacific trade pact.

Beijing is calling on the 11 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to opposethe self-ruled island’s application, a move Taipei has called the act of an arch bully.

Observers said the spat was a tricky dilemma for the 11 countries in the CPTPP, as support for Taipei could affect their economic ties with Beijing, which also applied to join the pact last week.

Taipei officially submitted its application on Wednesday to join the partnership as “the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei)” – the same title it uses in the World Trade Organization, of which Beijing is also a member.

Late on Thursday, the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing said China’s entry to the CPTPP would benefit post-pandemic global economic recovery, while adding that the one-China principle should be followed for the participation of Taiwan in any regional economic cooperation.

“We oppose the Democratic Progressive Party’s attempt to use the economy and trade to expand its so-called “international space” and undertaking activities to seek independence,” spokesman Zhu Fenglian said in the statement, referring to the pro-independence ruling party in Taiwan.

“We hope relevant nations can properly handle issues related to Taiwan and not give any convenience or platform for Taiwan independence activities.”

Also on Thursday, Taiwan said as many as 24 mainland Chinese warplanes – including 18 fighter jets, two bombers, two anti-submarine aircraft, a transport and an electronic warfare plane – entered its southwestern air defence zone.

“The Chinese government only wants to bully Taiwan in the international community, and it is the arch criminal of the increased cross-strait hostility. The Chinese government should make deep reflections and refrain from being an enemy of the people of Taiwan,” the island’s foreign ministry said, in a statement issued late on Thursday.

The statement went on to assert that Taiwan is not part of the People’s Republic of China, that the PRC had never ruled Taiwan for a single day, and had no right to represent Taiwan people in an international platform.

“The Chinese government publicly suppressed Taiwan just as Taiwan applied for the CPTPP, and threatened the people of Taiwan with massive air force. Only the Chinese government has done this kind of saying one thing and doing another thing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemns China‘s words and deeds of bullying Taiwan most severely.”

A separate statement by the Mainland Affairs Council – the island’s main agency for handling cross-strait relations – said joining a regional economic agreement was a legitimate right for the island, that no one could interfere with.

“We call on the Beijing authorities to face up to the reality of the two sides of the strait, properly and prudently implement the necessary reforms and adjustments of regulations to join the regional economic integration,” it said.

“Beijing authorities should stop unreasonable suppression and irrational political actions against Taiwan. It will help the prosperity and development of the Asia-Pacific regional economy.”

Originally known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the formerly 12-member deal was once promoted by the United States as an economic counterweight to mainland China’s growing economic influence, but was put on hold in early 2017 after then-US president Donald Trump abandoned it.

The regrouped pact links Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Britain is also keen to join the trade group and began negotiations in June.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he welcomed Taiwan’s application to join the pact, citing shared democratic values with the island.

“We consider Taiwan a very important partner with which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and rule of law,” Motegi told reporters this week during his visit to the United Nations in New York.

Zhu Songling, a professor at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, said there would be consequences for member states that supported Taiwan.

“Once the member states start to negotiate, they must be cautious, otherwise official, economic and trade relations with mainland China will be affected,” he said. “I believe that under this kind of statement, all members and parties will probably be more cautious in the process of Taiwan‘s accession.”

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said Taipei’s move was intended to enhance its presence on the international stage, but most of the 11 member states would not take the risk of damaging ties with Beijing. “But even though Taiwan’s bid may not succeed, Taiwan’s international appeal could be strengthened,” he said.

Xin Qiang, deputy director of the American studies centre at Fudan University, said member states would be cautious in handling ties with Beijing.

Additional reporting by Rachel Zhang and Reuters