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CPTPP delay likely to result in stalemate

Dithering let China get a foot in the door and could cost Taiwan its ascension hopes

Signatories and parties to CPTPP. (Wikipedia Commons image)

Signatories and parties to CPTPP. (Wikipedia Commons image)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is not a name that rolls off the tongue, while its acronym is quite the tongue twister.

However, this significant trade agreement is likely to be at the forefront of the debate over cross-strait relations and Taiwan’s relationship with the wider world over the next couple of years. Taiwan has talked about applying to accede to the CPTPP agreement for a few years now.

Needless to say, several measures needed to be put into place to make any application more likely to succeed. Unfortunately, these have been accompanied by dithering and the upshot is that China pipped Taiwan to making an application by a matter of six days.

Those six days could be critical because, as Taiwan’s chief negotiator John Deng (鄧振中) has said, if China joins the CPTPP first, “Taiwan's case to become a member will be at risk, this is fairly obvious.”

He is not wrong and there are members of the current administration, including Deng himself, who need to take a good look at themselves and asking how they managed to contrive to end up in this situation.

The CPTPP ascension process is fairly simple. New countries need the backing of every member state to be allowed in and applications are considered in the order they were submitted.

There are currently 11 CPTPP member states. The U.K., having made its application in February, is likely to become the 12th sometime in 2022.

So, what is the field of play looking like at the moment? There are some countries that Taiwan is likely to be able to rely on to back its bid.


There have already been words of support for Taiwan from Japan and Australia, while other big democracies like Canada and the U.K. (should its own application succeed) are likely to be onside too. Equally, Japan and Australia are the most likely countries to raise objections to China’s application.

China can expect support from members such as Vietnam, while Chile has already indicated that it would back the application too. Other countries that have fallen under China’s economic thrall are likely to get in line, so China will almost certainly push these countries to block Taiwan’s application.

Should China be accepted, it is almost inevitable that it will block Taiwan’s application.

Based on what we can see at the moment, the most likely outcome of Taiwan and China’s applications to accede to the CPTPP is that neither country will be able to win the backing of all other member states. Stalemate!

Given how imbalanced the positions of China and Taiwan are in the world, this outcome will inevitably be spun domestically as a victory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even if there is a degree of international humiliation at being rejected themselves.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Taiwan finds itself in this position but it is a mess of its own making.

Why wait?

Taiwan has been preparing to apply to the CPTPP for a long time. Given the sensitivities of Taiwan’s political status, it is perhaps understandable that it didn’t want to be the first country to test the ascension process out.

The U.K. made its application back in February. Why didn’t Taiwan’s application go in immediately afterward? What were the Taiwan authorities waiting for?

Given the lack of preparation in China for its application, it is fairly obvious the main point of submitting it when it did was to get a foot in the door before Taiwan.

Perhaps they think that they can bully and pressure other nations to let them in? Perhaps they just plan to drag the process out to hold up Taiwan’s application?

Whatever the truth, it is a situation entirely of Taiwan’s own making and one that highlights a broader problem with Taiwan’s approach to foreign policy and diplomacy. There is an inherent caution and strategy of doing things behind closed doors in order to avoid upsetting China.

Chances spurned

This has been praised in some quarters as a masterclass in "soft power." While there is some truth to this, it can also be argued that much of the progress that Taiwan has made is a result of China’s so-called "wolf warrior" diplomacy going too far, rather than anything Taiwan has done.

Journalists are relocating to Taiwan because the environment in China makes it impossible for them to do their job. Harvard has moved its Mandarin program for the same reason.

Taiwan’s softly-softly approach is also down to the country’s creaking public sector bureaucracy. It functions more like something from the 19th century than the hub of a thriving 21st-century democracy.

Taiwan needs to become a lot more self-confident and modern in the way it approaches the world. It needs to be more streamlined, responsive, and agile. Most importantly there needs to be a less risk-averse culture across everything it does.

Taiwan ticks all the CPTPP boxes and could have secured membership if it had moved at the right moment.

Since Taiwan waited, the chance may well have been spurned. If so, this is a big opportunity missed and should lead to some soul-searching and reforms to make sure such a situation can never occur again.