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Opinion

How Biden can use Taiwan to rattle China

At long last Taipei has real chance of joining the TPP

| Taiwan
The good news for Taipei is that soon it might have a true U.S. ally when Joe Biden assumes the presidency.   © Reuters

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

It is hard to think of an economy anywhere that deserves more COVID-19 kudos than Taiwan's.

As the U.S. flirts with the 1930s, Europe stumbles and Japan's deflation woes flare up, Taiwan shows the globe how it is done. Recession-wracked Hong Kong, fast becoming just another mainland city, can only wish its government had half the competence of Tsai Ing-wen's.

Independence, too. Of all President Xi Jinping's 2020 blunders -- and President Tsai's victories -- trashing what little faith Taiwan had in China tops the list. Watching Xi neuter Hong Kong's autonomy has the Taiwanese people pivoting toward Washington as rarely before.

The good news for Taipei is that soon it might have a true U.S. ally when Joe Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20. And at long last, a real shot at joining the one trade deal aimed at curbing China's worst impulses -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The world gave Donald Trump way too much credit on Taiwan. Yes, the outgoing U.S. president made a couple of halfhearted attempts at supporting Taiwan's independence. But Trump's game was all about annoying Xi, not standing up for Taiwan's democracy. Fact is, Trump would have sold out any ally for a better China trade deal.

Worries that Biden will revert to Washington's benign neglect of old toward Taipei are overdone. In fact, Biden is likely to champion one of Taiwan's biggest goals: TPP membership. Xi ran almost too many circles to count around Trump's dumpster fire of a White House. The fastest way for Biden to signal that the U.S. is back would be to reengage a TPP process that Trump exited, much to China's glee. And to supersize it in short order.

Stepping back into a framework Biden helped create as Barack Obama's vice president would restore potency to a 12-nation trade deal Beijing abhors. For all his fireworks and theatrical assaults on China, Trump achieved precisely zero in curbing Xi's regional ambition. To wit, Washington's trade deficit widened on Trump's watch.

For Biden, regaining momentum would come from lobbying South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and perhaps India to join TPP. Taiwan, too. Tsai's government wants to join. As a World Trade Organization member, Taiwan's inclusion in the TPP makes good sense. Yet the China factor made it a non-starter. Beijing still regards Taiwan as a breakaway province. The pushback sure to come from Xi's government means Team Biden will need a strategy of carrots and sticks to pull Taipei into the fold.

Taiwan's WTO accession in 2002 came during a very different era. That was on President Jiang Zemin's watch. Xi may be the most powerful Chinese leader in generations, but Jiang's 1993-2003 tenure was the more confident one. In 1997, Jiang even did a live press conference in Beijing with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. That would be unthinkable on Xi's watch.

Of course, Taiwan had to jump through diplomatic and linguistic hoops. It entered WTO as Republic of China to finesse one-China policy sensitivities. Under Xi, Taiwan vying for TPP membership is sure to be a tense, arduous process. But one that is well worth the grief. TPP would benefit from adding Taiwan's tech-driven economy, and vice versa. It would turbocharge Tsai's effort to increase competitiveness and diversify engines away from the mainland.

The Computex exhibition in Taipei, pictured in June 2018: TPP would benefit from adding Taiwan's tech-driven economy, and vice versa.   © Reuters

Taiwan has already asked Japan and Australia to back its TPP bid. In 2018, Tsai tapped Morris Chang, founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the globe's largest contract chipmaker, as special envoy to lobby Tokyo. That same year, Taipei reached out to Canberra. A key objective of the Xi era has been to further isolate Taiwan. In October, in fact, Beijing even seemed to hint at an invasion. Yet as Biden seeks to recalibrate a China relationship that Trump leaves in ruins, scoring a Taiwan-related win is an obvious target. It would buttress his tough-on-China bona fides while deepening TPP.

Since Trump left, the 11 remaining members rebranded it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. Biden may find willing allies in Tokyo and Canberra to help the pact meet the lofty goals its name suggests. Newish Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's falling approval rating could sure use a diplomatic victory. Japan's economy could use better access to Taiwan's 23 million-person market.

Few world leaders are at greater loggerheads with Xi, meantime, than Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Liberal Party MP Dave Sharma, writing in the China Maters newsletter, notes that with "Biden in the White House, the U.S. should be encouraged back into the CPTPP. Taiwan, in its capacity as an Asia-Pacific economy, should also be invited to join the CPTPP, regardless of Beijing's opposition."

One reason Xi will miss Trump is that the last four years gave Beijing free rein to spread its wings in Asia. Look no further than the recently signed 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, history's biggest trade deal.

Not for long, perhaps, as Biden reclaims America's Pacific-nation roots. He can do that right out of the gate by reentering the TPP process and recruiting new members -- including a Taiwanese economy showing North Asian neighbors how it is done.

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