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Trade

China blasts Taiwan's bid to join CPTPP trade pact

Taipei accuses Beijing of 'obstructing' island's international presence

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen: Taipei has applied to join the Japan-led CPTTP trade pact, a move that is expected to rile China. 

TAIPEI -- China on Thursday said it "strongly opposes" Taiwan's bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a day after Taipei applied for membership in the 11-country trade bloc.

"There is only one China in this world, and Taiwan can not be separated from China. We strongly oppose Taiwan's participation in any official agreement or organization. China's stance on this is very clear," Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters.

Taiwan submitted its application to join the Japan-led trade bloc on Wednesday, less than a week after China announced its own surprise bid for membership.

Earlier on Thursday, the island's top trade representative warned that if China were to be admitted to the grouping first, Beijing would attempt to block Taiwan from joining.

"China has been obstructing Taiwan's international presence. If China is admitted into CPTPP ahead of us, it will definitely risk Taiwan's entry to the trade bloc. It's a very obvious fact," top Taiwan trade negotiator John Deng said at a news conference on Thursday morning.

"Taiwan's application is mainly for our own interests, our companies' interests and for our own long-term economic planning purposes, and it has nothing to do with other countries' goals [or with] China's comments on our application," Deng said.

Reactions among current members have ranged from noncommittal to enthusiastic, with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi saying his country "welcomed" Taiwan's application.

"Taiwan shares the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, basic human rights and rule of law, and with its close economic relationship is an extremely important partner," Motegi said at an online press conference in the U.S. on Wednesday night. In his earlier comments on China's application, Motegi said it would be necessary to ascertain whether the country is able to meet the high standards of the CPTPP, without using the word "welcome."

Deng, a minister without portfolio, said Taiwan has been preparing to join such a regional partnership for many years. Taiwanese diplomats made the island's participation a top priority and are maintaining close communication with all existing members of the bloc, he added.

The government will immediately begin negotiations with CPTPP members in hopes of receiving approval as quickly as possible, Deng said, but added that is not yet clear how long the process will take. "The progress for the U.K's application to CPTPP has been the fastest one so far, and it already [has taken] months."

Taiwan has filed its application under the name "Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu" -- the same name under which it joined the World Trade Organization. Taiwan has used this name several times in negotiations with other countries and is less controversial than other appellations, Deng said.

Taiwan's application to join the CPTPP is widely expected to irk Beijing, which views the democratically governed island as part of its territory and has not ruled out seizing it by force. China's Global Times on Wednesday night published an article criticizing Taiwan's move as "making trouble."

Deng said Taiwan's CPTPP application should be reviewed separately from China's bid, as Taiwan has a very complete market mechanism, honors the rule of law, respects personal property and is willing to abide by the rules of the agreement.

Taiwan has been in close communication with Japan, which has played a critical role as leader in the trade pact after the U.S. withdrew from it in 2017, Deng said. He pointed out the "very close" relations between Taipei and Tokyo and many examples of the two helping each other in times of need.

Deng noted that restarting agricultural imports from several Japanese prefectures affected by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster is one of the Japanese government's priorities for the upcoming trade negotiations with Taiwan.

Taiwan has restricted Japanese food imports from five prefectures for years. A referendum passed in late 2018 urges the Tsai Ing-wen administration to continue the ban. The issue has been a source of trade friction between Taiwan and Japan. The U.S. on Tuesday lifted restrictions on Japanese food imports imposed following the nuclear disaster.

"Foods from Fukushima do not equal nuclear-contaminated foods. No country would import or sell nuclear-contaminated foods," Deng said, adding that the government will handle the issue based on the protection of public health and on scientific evidence and international standards. "I am sure we can find a proper way to deal with the matter with Japan during the negotiations."

Members of the CPTPP account for 24% of Taiwan's total trade, Lo Ping-cheng, Executive Yuan Spokesperson, told the same news conference. "Taiwan plays a vital role in the global high tech supply chain and has a free and transparent market, and we are capable of complying with international high standards to enter the bloc."

Kung Ming-hsin, minister of the National Development Council, said Taiwan's agriculture and service industries, as well as its automotive parts industry, would be feel the greatest impact from joining the CPTTP, while the steel, petrochemical and construction materials industries would also feel some impacts. "But overall, entering the trade bloc will definitely have more benefits than challenges," Kung said on Thursday.

Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs and senior vice president of Park Strategies, said as any CPTPP member can veto an application to join, Beijing will look for weak links among the grouping's 11 current members to block Taipei's bid.

"New Zealand and Singapore will be hard pressed to turn down Taiwan, however, as both have effective free trade pacts with the island. What's more, Singapore's armed forces train in Taiwan," King told Nikkei Asia. Japan and Australia are expected to strongly back Taipei's bid, while Malaysia's vocal support for Beijing's application to join suggests Kuala Lumpur may think otherwise, the analyst added, noting that Canada could go either way.

"It's just a shame the United States is no longer there to back Taiwan's application," King said.

The CPTPP's other members are Brunei, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam. The U.K. has begun negotiations to join the framework as well.

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