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August 20, 2017

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U.S. ready to move ahead with trade talks, official says

United States trade officials are ready to restart stalled trade talks with Taiwan aimed at ironing out irritants in trade relations, a senior U.S. trade official confirmed on Thursday.

Though Taiwan remains on Washington's so-called Special 301 Priority Watch List of countries that fail to adequately protect intellectual property rights (IPR), the U.S. "is ready" to reconvene consultations under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), said Charles W. Freeman, assistant United States trade representative for China.

Talks under TIFA, which previously involved dialogue between officials at the vice-minister level, were suspended in 1998 due to U.S. dissatisfaction with the island's protection of IPR.

Freeman, speaking at a discussion jointly sponsored by the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was hoping to travel to Taiwan, perhaps as early as June. The goal of his trip would be to look into the possibility of sending a "high-level" delegation to the island for trade talks at a later date.

The U.S. is "at a point now where we'd like to press ahead and have a high level team go to Taiwan to reconvene those talks," he said.

Even though TIFA discussions have been seen as a precursor to talks on a U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement (FTA), Washington is not currently interested in discussing an FTA, in large part because the U.S. business community is not interested, said Freeman.

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In fact, noted Freeman, some in the U.S. business community have asked USTR not to pursue an FTA with Taiwan. Not because of concerns about the reaction from mainland China, but because of concerns about the trade environment in Taiwan, he said.

"We would like to start discussing some of our current trade issues under the TIFA ... I think for right now that's enough," he said.

Freeman expressed his "frustration," given how "advanced" Taiwan is compared with China, that the problems of intellectual property piracy and counterfeiting in Taiwan have not yet been adequately addressed.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Freeman noted how he "loses patience" with Taiwan over the IPR issue, because as an "advanced" and "mature" economy, Taiwan "doesn't belong" on the IPR priority watch list.

"Taiwan shouldn't be engaged in the kind of silly piracy," he said.

But, while "we know how hard (Taiwan's) government has worked on IPR ... we still have some work to do," said Freeman.

Enforcement "on one level is very impressive," but on another level pirates in Taiwan "are extraordinarily resourceful" and have found ways to get around the enforcement, he added. "There has to be some movement on the legislative side," he said, adding, that fundamentally, tackling the problem of IPR infringement comes down to "political will."

Turning to cross strait trade relations, Freeman noted that "the cross-straits relationship has become a complicated issue."

While the U.S. hoped that by joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the same time, Taiwan and the mainland would be able to discuss issues in a non-political forum, it is "very unfortunate" that politics have derailed this aim, according to Freeman.

The "WTO is not a group of sovereign countries discussing issues of politics, it's a group of economies discussing issues of economic substance," he said. Sovereignty issues "have no place" in the WTO, said Freeman, as he urged both sides to "grow up."

Questioned on efforts by Beijing to see the status of Taiwan's permanent mission to the WTO downgraded, Freeman stressed that Washington would continue to deal with Taiwan's WTO representation whatever its name. All members of the WTO should be treated "identically," he told reporters later.

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