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May 27, 2017

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Continue forging bilateral trade deals, one at a time

At the Economic Ministers' conference in Qingdao on Saturday, China again pushed for the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific Region (FTAAP). Taiwan's Minister Chang Chia-chu (張家祝) expressed the nation's positive appraisal of the project, which has been talked about for ten years.

This is a reminder to Taiwan to keep focusing some of its attention on the higher stakes of economic integration. Coming at a time when society is just recovering from turmoil over the cross-strait services pact, the FTAAP discussion asks the nation to focus its efforts on marshalling resources to build bilateral economic agreements wherever possible.

Protecting industries from Free Trade Economic Pilot Zones (FTEPZ), as DPP legislators tried to do this week, may be a short-term political reaction provoked by the recoil over the services pact, but eventually painful decisions about opening up the labor market will have to be made in exchange for trade agreements. Granting partners access to different sectors of the labor market is an unavoidable issue.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has run into problems between the United States and Japan, with the latter's agricultural industry fighting tooth and nail for its coveted protections. The TPP does not include China, and is obviously part of the U.S. strategy to counterbalance the country's rise. China has set out the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Chinese premier Li Keqiang claimed at the Boao Forum last month that the RCEP is a framework more respectful of national priorities and therefore easier to embrace.

Yet the long-term dream of an integrated economic free trade zone for Asia must be thought of not as a panacea for the problem of Taiwan falling behind the pace of liberalization. Rather, Taiwan should be concentrating its efforts on continuing to establish areas of cooperation while recognizing the difficulties that exist when attempting to sign deals with countries that have different priorities.

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