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05.10.2021 Author: Vladimir Terehov

What Could Taiwan’s Application to Join the CPTPP Mean?


Once again we have an excuse to use the phrase “the NEO did not have time…”. This time in connection with the official appeal to the regional association Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which was made on September 17 this year by the leadership of the PRC. Just one week later, a similar statement came from the Ministry of Economic Affairs of Taiwan.

This is by no means the kind of primitive political trolling that can be suggested by the occasional (incorrect) analogy between Taiwan and the Eastern European literalist “public”. Who takes each and any chance it gets to stick its tongue out at its old patron under the guise of a new one, now on the other side of the globe.

The nearly 24-million-strong island ranks 19th in the world in terms of annual GDP, providing an annual income of more than $55,000 for every generalized Taiwanese (13th worldwide). But especially important are the qualitative characteristics of the Taiwanese economy, which today is one of the most advanced in the world.  It is enough to refer to the $12 billion contract signed during the previous US administration, under which Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC), will build a microchip plant in Arizona.

In other words, Taiwan can offer future CPTPP partners a very tangible product. This is not the ridiculous “Russian threat” that the dull-witted little dodgers from the east of the continent are trying to “sell” to the serious European guys.

The leadership of the current ruling Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan does not, again, engage in cheap political trolling of the Mainland, sticking to the course of establishing the island as a normal subject of international relations. One cannot help but note that this is aided by the mood among a large part of the Taiwanese, who for the most part do not seek reunification with the Mainland. As evidenced by opinion polls on all sorts of related topics.

At the same time, the current leadership of Taiwan refrains (for now) from making more or less definite statements about the full-fledged statehood of the island. For the vast majority of the world’s countries (including all of the US administrations of recent decades) agree with Beijing’s key principle of “unified China,” of which Taiwan is a part.

Another no less important party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang, disagrees with the “creeping” course to acquire a fully autonomous status from China. Which adheres to the so-called “Consensus-1992” signed with the leadership of the PRC 30 years ago, as well as the precepts of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek regarding the state structure of a unified country. Taiwan’s relations with China developed quite productively during the Kuomintang’s period in power (especially from 2008 to 2016).

It was therefore noteworthy that almost simultaneously with Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP, Eric Chu was elected leader of the Kuomintang Party (for the second time after his 2015-2016 term). Beijing’s reaction to the first event was (expectedly) negative, and positive to the second. It is worth noting that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message to Chu describes the situation in the Taiwan Strait as “complex and grim”.

Apparently, the PRC is hoping for the success of the Kuomintang in the upcoming two important electoral processes. Local elections are to be held in 2022, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections a year later.  Note that in the previous similar electoral cycle, the Kuomintang inflicted a severe defeat on the DPP in local elections, but soon after lost the parliamentary-presidential elections. And the second was not predetermined at all and seemed almost a miracle.

Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP does not annoy Beijing per se. The reason for this has to do with who initiated it. And that is the current “separatist” leadership represented by the DPP, led by the charismatic Tsai Ing-wen, the current president of Taiwan. The author is certain that if a call to Beijing from a certain government office in Taipei about wanting to join the CPTPP had come from a representative of the Kuomintang administration, there would have been an answer: “Shoot. You want to be associated with WHO and ICAO? That’s fine. But surely not in the name of the ‘Republic of Taiwan’? Right, and hopefully you won’t try to ‘come back’ to the UN” – “Naturally. How could you even think such a thing!”

So, contrary to frequent speculation, a “non-peaceful” solution to the Taiwan problem is not predetermined at all. Although it was legislated in the PRC in 2005. For using this “extreme” way of resolving it can result in a variety of serious costs. It is unlikely to enhance China’s positive political image in the international arena. Not to mention the loss of life, it is highly likely that the “economic jewel” that is Taiwan’s economy today will be damaged in some way.

Let us not forget that US domestic law (primarily the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979) gives US leaders the “legal right” to intervene militarily should Beijing resort to arms to solve the Taiwan problem. Again, Washington is not obliged to do so, but can exercise that “right”. With understandable catastrophic consequences for the whole world.

Note that the existence of different currents and groups in the political elites of the US, which have different views on the prospects for relations with the PRC. In particular, the Taiwan problem, which is almost their main irritant today.

This difference is evident in Washington’s political practices, which reflect President Biden’s repeatedly expressed assessment of the current China as its main geopolitical adversary and, at the same time, a necessary partner.  For now, Beijing is at a loss as to how to respond to this “dualism” of self-evaluation by its main opponent.

It was present in the second (after the first, which happened seven months earlier on the occasion of Biden’s inauguration) phone conversation between the Chinese leader and his American counterpart. A positive expert evaluation of the said conversation is limited to a statement of the fact that it took place. That is, there has been no real movement in bilateral relations so far, although there is talk on both sides that they are just about to start.

Against the background of such “stagnation,” the US supporters of encouraging separatist tendencies in the policy of the current leadership of Taiwan continue to be active.

The already dangerously confused state in which the Taiwan problem now finds itself is complicated by the increasing involvement of Japan. This is obviously promoted by the Taiwanese leadership. For example, on September 22, former Minister of Administrative Affairs Sanae Takaichi, a contender for the leadership of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, spoke online with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The fact of the conversation between the two ladies of state did not go unnoticed by Beijing.

However, let’s not lose hope for the best, that is, that the solution of the Taiwan problem will avoid the “weapons” phase after all. For this to happen, all the players involved (directly or indirectly) must at least be willing to begin to solve the problem. It may well be that after this, it will quickly become apparent that Taiwan’s aspirations to join the CPTPP and to broaden its involvement in various international organizations are of secondary (rather than principal, as they are now) importance to China. As was the case during the period when the Kuomintang Party was in power in Taiwan.

On the whole, however, one can conclude that party-personal changes in the island’s leadership are beneficial to the solution of the Taiwan problem. This could happen in the upcoming general election in two years. The charismatic Tsai Ing-wen will not be able to remain (due to constitutional limitations) as president anyway. But it takes a victory for the Kuomintang party in the struggle, both for said office and for the parliamentary majority. Which is quite possible.

In other words, it is possible that soon enough the situation in the Taiwan Strait will no longer seem “complex and grim” to the Chinese leader. And therefore there is no need to remind us of the possibility of a “non-peaceful” solution to the Taiwan problem and the question of the island’s accession to the CPTPP, again, will turn out to be completely trivial.

But to achieve its goal, Beijing cannot avoid a long painstaking work in the Taiwanese direction, using a set of different tools. Among which guns are hardly the most relevant.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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