WASHINGTON -- With the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks expected to reach a settlement as early as spring, the Obama administration is stepping up overtures to Taiwan on joining the regional trade pact as part of efforts to keep China in check.
The U.S. sees the TPP as a key network integrating East Asian neighbors of China, which is trying to strengthen its control over disputed territories through such means as creating an air defense identification zone.
Taiwan may join the TPP before the end of 2015 at the earliest, according to a White House official.
Based on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks that resumed in the spring of 2013, American and Taiwanese authorities have quietly discussed having Taiwan join the TPP.
U.S. President Barack Obama has continued sending positive signals to encourage Taiwan to join the TPP framework, says Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at The Brookings Institution.
When Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou stopped in Los Angeles late last month on his way to Africa and Central America, he spoke with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, in a conference call, requesting American support for Taiwan's joining the TPP.
The U.S. and Taiwan do not even have diplomatic relations. But the ex-president from the ruling Democratic Party and a promising potential candidate in the next presidential election took Ma's call, underscoring the Obama administration's focus on Taiwan.
Japan and South Korea are already set to take part in the TPP. By promoting free trade, reforms to state-owned companies, and transparency in economic regulations in Taiwan as well, the U.S. seeks to encourage reform in China.
Making Taiwan part of the regional trade pact is also important for the U.S. in maintaining East Asia's balance of power.
Taiwan has worked to mend relations with China since Ma took office in 2008, forming an economic cooperation framework agreement. The U.S. welcomes reduced tensions in the Taiwan Strait. But if Taiwan gets too close to China, the political and security dynamics of the region could be altered.
Obama is slated to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping next month. With China regarding Taiwan as an integral part of the nation, the Xi government may disapprove of Taiwan's joining the TPP on its own.