by Brian Hioe and Minmin

Photo Credit: DPP

IT WOULD SEEM that Taiwan’s dilemma is its status as a pariah state among the international community, unrecognized as a country by all but 21 UN member states. Securing recognition of Taiwan’s status as an independent sovereign nation, or at least territory, then, would be be a way safeguarding against the threat of territorial annexation by China, given that China’s justification for a possible military invasion and forced annexation is its claim to Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory. The world community would not stand so easily for an invasion of Taiwan if Taiwan were recognized as separate from China.

Thus, Taiwan has sought to find ways to enter to the international community in order to be recognized as an sovereign nation. Taiwan’s attempts at entering international organizations whose membership consists of recognized nations is part of this attempt to enter the international community and to find recognition. Taiwan thus pursues membership of international bodies in the hopes that this would do something to counter its general lack of international acknowledgement. In truth, this has not exactly worked out where Taiwan’s membership in various international bodies still occurs under some version of “Taiwan, Province of China.”

However, it is probably such anxieties which undergird the arguments that call for Taiwan’s entrance into the TPP. Taiwan’s economy is already dwarfed by that of neighboring China, and this contrast in size and the interconnection between the two mark another threat to Taiwan’s sovereignty. It is feared that economic integration of Taiwan and China might facilitate the future political or military integration of Taiwan and China.

It was such that in the past year we would see the outbreak of the Sunflower Movement and the month-long occupation of the Legislative Yuan over the CSSTA trade agreement which was to be signed with China. But if in that case, students were reacting against a free trade deal to be signed with China, the TPP would seem to be a different matter given that it is largely America pushing for the TPP. And as a result, it is such that no less than DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen is among those advocating Taiwanese membership in the TPP. As expected, Tsai’s recent visit to Japan included expressing her intent to learn more about the TPP, possible repercussions, and the ways Japan dealt with the issue of TPP.

It is another issue altogether whether any attempt by Taiwan to enter the TPP would, in fact, be allowed. But the TPP has been controversial internationally because of the closed-door process under which negotiations have occurred, the wide sweeping implications it would have on intellectual property rights, and the advancement of international corporate interest at the expense of the local industries which critics argue would take place.

In recent weeks, with the conclusion of negotiations on the TPP, it has been a matter of much discussion as to the pros and cons of the trade agreement on member nations as now national legislatures of TPP member nations will discuss whether to ratify approval. Nonetheless, in examination of the TPP and its effect on Taiwan, even as Taiwan is not one of the TPP member states at present, it may be the question we should be asking ourselves is regarding any future attempts by Taiwan to enter the TPP is this: In order to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence and existing sovereignty, what do we risk in terms in terms of the democratic values we are willing to throw overboard?

Is the TPP In Itself A “Black Box” Deal?

GOING ALONG with the tide of resistance to the CSSTA by the student occupiers of the Legislative Yuan, the DPP has taken a strong stance against the CSSTA which Ma Ying-Jeou’s government had decided by unilateral fiat to sign with China. There would be a similar reaction in Taiwan against the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, largely China’s answer to the American-led IMF, in April.

Yet if the dilemma of Taiwan has sometimes been seen as that Taiwan is caught uncomfortably between the world powers of the US and China, it would seem that some are fine with Taiwan leaning in the direction of the US so long as it does not lean in the direction of China. This would be because the US is not seen as infringing upon Taiwanese sovereignty the way that China does. So, then, might we understand Tsai Ing-Wen’s support for Taiwanese membership in the TPP.

PhotoCreditBernieSanders2016Prospective TPP member states. Photo credit: Bernie Sanders 2016

Actually, if the TPP is aimed at cementing economic ties between the United States and Asia-Pacific territories, the countries included in the deal encompass some 40% of the global GDP. This in part to check the rising economic political power of China. Behind trade deals, then, as with trade deals signed with China which have designs on the annexation of Taiwan behind them, we find the specter of geopolitics regarding the American “Rebalance Towards Asia” aimed at counterbalancing rising Chinese power. Taiwanese would, for one, do well to have a more critical view of that siding with America to resist China does not come without dangers as well.

Nonetheless, the Sunflower Movement occurred last year not only because of fear of Chinese encroachment upon Taiwanese sovereignty through economic means, but because of the undemocratic “black box” means by which the KMT sought to unilaterally push the CSSTA through legislature. And to this end, we might note that the TPP is itself a “black box”—more so than even the CSSTA. American senators, for example, are only allowed to read the text of the TPP in one of two secure, soundproofed reading rooms in the basement of the American capitol after surrendering electronic devices to security. No notes are allowed be taken within the secure reading room and senators are not allowed to speak to anyone about the written text—even in cases when senators may need to consult with industry experts or legal experts in order to understand technical aspects of the deal. But more generally because of the closed door nature of negotiations and the secrecy surrounding the text of the deal itself, much of our knowledge of the TPP came from WikiLeaks.

Why such secrecy? Certainly, security concerns of member nations are raised. But one can also point to how global corporations have had a direct influence on TPP negotiations, with representatives from large, global corporations as Haliburton, Chevron, and Comcast consulted even when American senators have been kept in the dark about much of the deal. Thus, it may be that the TPP advances the interests of corporations above all else. As with many similar free trade agreements, the TPP would allow corporations to sue standing national governments for breaches of international trade treaties signed by that government, allowing corporations to override the public interest laws of member nation-states of the TPP.

With such measures contained within it, it is not surprising that many have pointed to that the deal would ultimately benefit multinational corporations at the cost of local industries, possibly leading to the loss of domestic jobs because the economic integration facilitated by the deal it will make it easier for multinational corporations to shift jobs to areas where production costs are cheaper or standards are laxer.

Moreover, it is that the TPP may have a very human cost. Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Doctors Without Borders has come out with a strong stance against the TPP in its present form on the basis of its strengthening of intellectual property laws to apply them to medicine, meaning that cheaper drugs may be kept out of the market as a result. Given the overinflation of drug prices relative to their production costs means that this would ultimately lead to cheap drugs being kept out of the hands of those who need it, to the benefit of large pharmaceutical corporations—which may have a very direct effect on the lives of those in need of life-saving drugs whose prices may now become unaffordable.

But popular opposition to the TPP is on the rise. No less than Hillary Clinton, who previously was a strong advocate for the TPP as Secretary of State, would as a presidential candidate in the running for Democratic presidential candidate do an about face and declare opposition to the TPP. It would seem that strong public opposition to the TPP and the opposition to the TPP of her rival for Democratic presidential candidacy, Bernie Sanders, would be the crucial factors behind this change in political position.

What Would the Effect of the TPP Be Upon Taiwan?

WHAT THEN would be the effects of the TPP trade deal upon Taiwan? During the Sunflower Movement, participants were united in opposition to the undemocratic “black box” methods by which the KMT pushed through the CSSTA and were usually also opposed to that the CSSTA as signed with China would infringe upon Taiwan’s de facto independence. Movement participants were divided about whether they were opposed only to the CSSTA because it was signed with China or opposed to all free trade altogether.

But if critics have generally pointed to that Taiwan’s waning economic status in the world relative to China requires Taiwan to any trade deals it can, thus arguing that Taiwan should seek to enter the TPP, we might note that they quite often are making the same arguments that the KMT did regarding the CSSTA. Opposition to free trade agreements as the TPP is billed as ideological and irrational in nature given the utter necessity of signing the bill—of course, this was what the KMT said about those who opposed the CSSTA, too. The signing of the CSSTA was justified in terms of economic necessity.

Of course, opposition to free trade does not mean opposition to all trade altogether. It is that a set of specific economic policies has come to be known as “free trade”. So to say one opposes “free trade” is quite easily elided as opposing all trade altogether, in any form. The KMT would use this fact in order to smear Sunflower Movement activists as irrational, among other things. Those who would dismiss TPP critics as irrational are now doing the same.

IMG_20140322_205204 copy 2The outside of the occupied Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. The sign reads “Black Box CSSTA”. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

We might note, too, though the short memory of uncritical TPP supporters who would seem to have forgotten the negative effect of international trade deals signed by in the past which have negatively impacted of domestic Taiwanese industries. It was Taiwan’s entrance into the WTO in 2002, for example, which largely led to the collapse of the Taiwanese film industry with Hollywood films flooding the market after state deregulation. There are other examples. More broadly, the entrance of Asia-Pacific countries into free trade bodies and the lifting of trade barriers which are conditional to entrance into such has led to the collapse of domestic industries now swamped by international capital. Taiwan would be no exception, as we can see the past precedent of IMF loans to East Asian countries after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the effect upon Taiwan after its entrance into the WTO.

It is has also likely never entered the minds of uncritical TPP supporters to remember past incidents in which foreign corporations shifted manufacturing to Taiwan because of cheap production costs and laxer standards in Taiwan, to the detriment or even permanent injury of Taiwanese workers as we see in the RCA Taiwan incident of the late 1960s—a case which dragged on over 40 years. Would Taiwan become a site for cheap manufacturing, in fact, it were more closely interwoven into the economic bloc which the TPP would seek to form? Even then, it would be a question whether Taiwanese manufacturing would have any real way of competing which China, which has the expansive geographic areas for large factories which Taiwan does not have. And what would that mean for Taiwanese themselves? Taiwan would seem to have ambitions of reaching towards something like first world American economic prosperity through entrance into the TPP, but who can say that would not actually mean sliding towards the third world?

What Does One Give Up In Order to Enter the International Community?

BUT SOMETIMES it is astonishing what national governments are willing to throw overboard in terms of democratic values or the economic welfare of its citizens in order to secure international recognition. Because if in the present, Taiwan seems overshadowed by China and to largely be a pariah state in the international community because of China’s influence, we might remember that China itself was also something of a pariah state for quite a long time. Furthermore, China’s integration into the world economy and momentous rise is largely a post-2000 phenomenon, even if its rise had been predicted for some time. We forget too easily in the present that as a result of its communist past, for a long time China was not accepted as an equal partner in international trade.

Namely, for a long time, China, too, was seeking recognition from the international community along such lines. China would thus be willing to accept harsh conditions in order to enter the WTO, as marking equal partnership in international trade with other members of the international community. We are still seeing the massive effects of the changes economic policy China made in order to join the WTO, for example, with the displacement of agricultural workers who are now uprooted and forced to turn towards non-agricultural work, increase in unemployment, followed by competition between displaced former agricultural workers and city-based laborers, and resulting social disturbances. The economic welfare of citizens is sometimes just what one discards in order to enter free trade bodies as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, or TPP.

Although it may be ironic to draw a comparison between China and Taiwan, given that Taiwan’s pariah status is because of Chinese influence, the question we might ask is whether Taiwan would be willing to make similar sacrifices in order to enter the international community or secure recognition in some fashion. As for Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP who are pushing for Taiwan to enter the TPP, this is the moral dilemma which they must face in the present. And the Taiwanese people have not yet forcefully asked Tsai and the DPP this question.

Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) is an M.A. student at Columbia University, a freelance writer on politics and social activism, and an occasional translator. He is a formerly a resident of Taipei, Taiwan.

Minmin studied for her BA at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, specializing in theoretical and international politics in relations to Taiwan.

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