Taiwan Seeks to Start Free-Trade Talks With U.S.

Date: Monday, August 17, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

A pact would be part of island-democracy’s effort to deepen its partnership with Washington and resist pressure from Beijing

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said she wants to start talks on a free-trade pact with the U.S., part of a broad effort to deepen her island democracy’s partnership with Washington and resist pressure from Beijing.

In an online speech aired Wednesday, Ms. Tsai said starting trade negotiations are among her second-term priorities in strengthening relations with the U.S., a major trading partner and key arms supplier for Taiwan.

Ms. Tsai didn’t set a time frame for the talks. Progress toward formal free-trade negotiations have been stalled for roughly two decades over disagreements that include Taiwanese restrictions on additives used in the production of American pork and beef.

“We must be clear-eyed on how we can move forward” on a free-trade deal, she warned, while signaling a willingness to overcome the differences.

“For too long, closer trade relations have been hindered by technicalities that account for just a fraction of two-way trade,” Ms. Tsai said in her comments, delivered to an online forum organized by two Washington think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the Center for American Progress.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that he discussed trade issues with Ms. Tsai during a meeting in Taipei on Monday, “including questions surrounding a bilateral trade arrangement.” He declined to provide details.

The U.S. is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner, with two-way trade in goods and services amounting to about $94.5 billion in 2018, according to U.S. government data. Some U.S. and Taiwanese politicians and policy experts have advocated for a bilateral free-trade pact, which they say would help strengthen Taipei’s ability to counter economic pressure from China, Taiwan’s largest trading partner.

China’s ruling Communist Party, which has never governed Taiwan but claims the island as its territory, has used its economic clout and global influence to squeeze Ms. Tsai’s government and isolate Taipei diplomatically since Ms. Tsai first took office in 2016. The pressure has grown in recent years as Chinese leader Xi Jinping moves to exert more control over his country’s periphery.

The U.S. National Security Council and the State Department have been pressing for free-trade talks with Taiwan as a way to add pressure on Beijing amid escalating U.S.-China tensions over issues spanning trade, technological competition and global influence.

Trump administration officials say U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has so far stymied the idea, due to his objections to what he considers Taiwan’s protectionist policies that curtail imports of American beef and pork over the presence of the additive ractopamine, a meat-leanness enhancer used by some U.S. meat producers.

“We still face longstanding trade barriers that restrict market access for U.S. beef and pork products, despite previous commitments by Taiwan to fix these problems,” Mr. Lighthizer wrote recently to Sen. John Cornyn (R, Texas). “Resolving these issues will be critical to deepening our trade and investment relationship with Taiwan.”

Taiwan first imposed curbs on American beef in December 2003 after the discovery of a case of mad-cow disease in the U.S. The restrictions were later eased but Taipei subsequently banned meat imports containing ractopamine.

Most countries have concerns about ractopamine, which is common on U.S. farms, and has been a sticking point in other trade talks as well. China and the European Union are among U.S. trading partners with bans on the additive. Studies show that ractopamine can cause stiffness, lameness and death among animals. Countries also disagree about how much of the additive is safe for human consumption.

In 2012, Taiwan’s legislature passed a bill to allow beef imports with trace amounts of ractopamine, but proposals to ease the island’s zero-tolerance policy on the additive in other meat products—like pork—faced vocal opposition from civic groups and the local pig-farming industry.

Ms. Tsai didn’t refer explicitly to disagreements over U.S. meat imports, but appeared to suggest that compromises could be found on that front. “We want to work together to resolve these issues in a way that is safe for our consumers and also consistent with established scientific standards,” she said.

“I believe that the people of Taiwan can see the value and wisdom in building closer economic relations with the U.S.,” Ms. Tsai said. “And conversely we hope that the U.S. recognizes the broader strategic implications such an agreement would undoubtedly have.”


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