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The UK must not keep Taiwan endlessly waiting on its bid to join trade bloc


4 min read

As the United Kingdom pursues its vision of a post-Brexit Global Britain, the Indo-Pacific region has become an area of central importance.

In July, the government signed an entry agreement to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trading bloc consisting of 11 other countries. This was heralded as a vital next step for securing Britain’s new position in the world economy.

Whilst the government has emphasised the “significant” benefits of the deal, the OBR has forecast that it will add just a fraction of a per cent to GDP in the long term.

Kicking the can further down the road cannot be the answer

Yet behind the figures and forecasts lies a potential opportunity to strongly shape the future of international trade and relations within the Indo-Pacific region. Trade deals are always about more than trade, and Britain must be clear about its vision for the future.

All members of the CPTPP commit to encouraging the expansion of the bloc in order to further enhance regional economic integration. This is an aim which has been complicated by the simultaneous applications of both China and Taiwan.

Decisions within the CPTPP are made by consensus, and so the UK will have the power of veto over any further applications from any prospective members. This will bring the UK into direct contact with the complicated issue of evaluating applications from both Beijing and Taipei.
Inevitably, participant members will be considering not only the prospects of enhanced trade from prospective members, but also their compatibility in terms of fundamental respect for a rules-based international order.

The relationship between Taiwan and China is enveloped in a complex history. Following the civil war in the late 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party retreated to the island of Taiwan where he ruled by martial law, imposing a “white terror” on the island. 

In 1996, Taiwan held its first presidential election and has successfully transitioned towards a constitutional democracy. It often now ranks as amongst the freest societies in Asia, and was notably the first country in the region to legalise same-sex marriage. 

With the Chinese Communist Party continuing to press for the “reunification” of Taiwan with the mainland, the question of the accession of China and Taiwan to the CPTPP carries all the complexities of their historical relationship. It is theoretically possible for both to join, neither to join, or for only one to join. Each of these paths creates its own difficulties.

As it stands, Taiwan’s application to join the CPTPP appears to be frozen, but this cannot be the ultimate response. According to the CPTPP accession process, decisions about proceeding with candidates must be made within a “reasonable period of time”. Kicking the can further down the road cannot be the answer. The UK government will have to be clear about their vision for Taiwan’s future participation in the CPTPP.

China currently faces various hurdles in the path to accession. The compatibility issues range from, among many others, those relating to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China, to questions over labour, human rights, intellectual property, and transparency. CPTPP members will also be considering the fact that China is the world’s second largest economy and already the largest trading partner of several CPTPP member states.

From the beginning, part of the value of the CPTPP has been contained in its potential for future expansion. It has notably grown out from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), of which the United States was a fully fledged participant. There will be hopes that a future US administration will reconsider their interest in the CPTPP.

It is incumbent on current and future UK governments to consider what a future CPTPP should look like. In an uncertain world, the UK must be certain about its vision for a future global Britain. 


Judith Cummins, Labour MP for Bradford South and co-chair of Labour Friends of Taiwan

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