THE POSSIBILITY OF a free trade agreement between Taiwan and the United States has been discussed fitfully for years, if not decades. The recent visit of US Health Secretary Alex Azar, the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since diplomatic relations ended in 1979, has given it new life.
Earlier this week, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen told a virtual meeting hosted by two US think tanks that it was now a priority for her government.
Taipei would be the primary beneficiary politically and economically from any such agreement. Washington would get little out of beyond it providing another point of provocation with Beijing. The Trump administration has been more supportive of Taipei than its immediate predecessors. However, any promotion of Taiwan’s autonomy takes the Trump administration a step closer to one of China’s ruddiest redlines — and the inevitable retaliatory response.
That would go beyond Beijing’s efforts to block Taiwan’s participation in international organisations, as it is successfully managing against the US-lead effort to re-integrate Taiwan into the World Health Organization, along with chipping away at Taipei’s few remaining official ties with other countries.
At this point, Beijing would stop short of military action, even if it sustains the possibility of it. In May, for example, Premier Li Keqiang omitted the customary word ‘peaceful’ when he spoke of China’s intention to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
Taipei has just announced a 10% increase in defence spending, regardless. In recent months, the United States and France have approved additional arms sales to the island.
However, there is a risk that the growing incursions by PLA Air Force warplanes into Taiwanese air space will lead to unintended conflict. That might prove challenging to de-escalate while US-China relations remain febrile.