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Taiwan, Singapore Sign Free Trade Deal as China Relents

  • Ralph Jennings

Taiwan's Economic Affairs Minister Chang Chia-Juch and Foreign Minister David Lin attend a news conference after Taiwan and Singapore signed their agreement, Nov. 7, 2013.

Taiwan's Economic Affairs Minister Chang Chia-Juch and Foreign Minister David Lin attend a news conference after Taiwan and Singapore signed their agreement, Nov. 7, 2013.

After more than three years of talks, Taiwan and Singapore have finally signed a trade liberalization deal. The pact was signed in Singapore on Thursday and represents Taiwan’s most significant to date. The deal signals that Taiwan’s powerful foe, China, has relaxed its' stance forbidding major countries from engaging directly with the island

Taiwan and its fifth largest trade partner, Singapore, hope the deal will provide a lift to two-way trade that reached $28.2 billion last year. China sees Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a state free to negotiate with other countries, and in the past Beijing had blocked deals such as this, except for pacts with Taiwan’s tiny diplomatic allies.

Scholars say Beijing has recently eased its position on Taiwan trade following its own economic cooperation pact with Taiwan, made in 2010 as part of a broader effort to get along after six decades of hostilities.

George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Cultural University, in Taipei, says China can tolerate deals that avoid implying that Taipei and Beijing are separate countries. He says that means no signatures by diplomats or agreements that mention the words “free trade deal.” The pact just signed with Taiwan’s fifth largest trading partner is called an economic partnership, or referred to by its acronym: ASTEP.

“It goes back to two issues, as what name and what form, by whom, to sign the agreement, ASTEP is two rep offices signing. Under this form, I think China can look the other way,” said Tsai.

Beijing, backed by its economic muscle, previously forbid its 170-plus diplomatic allies, including the world’s biggest countries, from engaging with Taiwan. China has seen Taiwan as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. In the past, it has threatened to use military force to reunite the two, but over the past five years it has sought to impress Taiwan’s public with trade and investment tie-ups, part of a push toward eventual reunification.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou is expected to win badly needed public support for the Singapore deal; his approval ratings currently hover around 20 percent. Taiwan’s trade with Singapore comes to five percent of its total with other territories, and the island government estimates the agreement will add $701 million to its $474 billion economy over the next 15 years.

Kweibo Huang, associate diplomacy professor at National Chengchi University, in Taipei, thinks the pact will especially help Taiwan catch up with regional economic integration. China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia lead Taiwan in trade deals with one another as well as with Western nations. Taiwan signed its first major Asia-Pacific trade agreement in July with New Zealand.

Huang feels Taiwan’s domestic economy falls short of ideal, while its participation in increasingly fast-paced regional economic integration is limited. Huang adds that Taiwan must speed up the signing of free trade deals to ensure its economic security.

Taiwanese official media say exports to Singapore will grow by $782 million under the trade agreement, and imports by $719 million. The island’s manufacturing sector, the bedrock of its economy, would grow by $1.18 billion. The pact will also eliminate tariffs on 99 percent of Taiwan’s imports from Singapore, a boon to the free-port city state that already keeps tariffs low.