President Trump’s top trade negotiator came under new pressure from Congress on Thursday to strike a formal trade deal with Taiwan amid rapidly worsening tensions with mainland China.
In a bipartisan letter signed by 50 senators, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer was urged to start negotiating with Taipei in order to reduce US “reliance” on China, diversify the country’s supply chains and protect American national security.
A comprehensive trade deal, the senators wrote, would “serve as a signal to other nations that Taiwan is a viable partner that is open for business”.
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The letter was the latest sign of a growing consensus between the two parties that Washington needs to do more to stand up to Beijing – a feeling that only seems to have intensified during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many members of Congress also say the US should move closer to the democratic government in Taipei at the same time.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to take it under its control. The US sells weaponry to Taiwan, but its policy on whether it would defend the island from a Chinese attack has been described as “strategic ambiguity”.
Beijing’s propaganda outlets typically lash out whenever the US makes official contact with Taipei, and Chinese officials have effectively blocked Taiwan’s participation in many international organisations, including the World Health Organization.
The Trump administration has sent multiple senior officials to Taiwan in recent months. In September, Keith Krach, an undersecretary of state, attended a memorial service in September for former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui, known as the island’s “father of democracy”.
On Wednesday, Washington and Taipei signed a separate deal to cooperate on infrastructure development in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Observers said that cooperation reflected the increasing concerns in the US and Taiwan that their supply chains – especially for essential supplies during a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic – are at the mercy of Chinese manufacturers and traders who must operate under the watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party.
In August, Taiwan also announced it would ease its restrictions on US beef and pork exports, long considered a priority for US officials and a barrier to any trade deal with Taipei.
In the senators’ letter to Lighthizer, they described Taiwan as a “reliable partner in many of our industries” and urged the trade representative to prioritise a trade deal with the island.
But despite the bipartisan pressure, it remains to be seen if the administration will start that process, even as it continues to vilify Beijing and send officials to Taiwan.
“I would think a decision on trade talks with Taiwan would come from the White House, rather than from USTR,” said Claire Reade, a former assistant US trade representative for China affairs.
“Given the Trump administration’s interest in a stable stock market and no serious problems with agriculture exports to China in the next month prior to the US election, I would think they would consider a complex question like this very cautiously, and avoid taking steps that might create sudden backlash from China.”
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