The deputy United States trade representative has dashed the Taiwan government's hopes of entering into free trade negotiations with the U.S. anytime soon.
Karan Bhatia, the deputy U.S. trade representative, broke the news Friday while speaking to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. He said the U.S. is not considering a free-trade agreement, or FTA, with Taiwan, although he did not rule the idea out entirely.
"It would be premature to discuss an FTA with Taiwan,” he said. “But looking to the future, we do want to grow our relationship, and we do not rule out any mechanism to further enhance our bilateral economic cooperation that makes sense."
Bhatia is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in six years. He said Washington would explore other ways to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan trade ties, and to encourage other countries, including China, to maintain and expand their existing trade relationships with the island.
During his two-day visit, he discussed bilateral trade issues such as intellectual property rights, telecommunications and agriculture with Taiwan officials.
Taipei had hoped to use Bhatia's visit to convince Washington of the merits of a free-trade pact, which is the top priority on Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's foreign trade agenda. The government feels such a deal could help ease Taipei's isolation.
While Taiwan has trading partners all over the world and is a member of the World Trade Organization, it only has one free-trade agreement with Panama. Many nations are reluctant to anger Beijing by entering into trade agreements with Taiwan, which could be interpreted as giving the island the status of a sovereign country.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after the civil war and the island has been self-governing since then, but Beijing regards the island as part of its territory.
Washington has not had formal diplomatic relations with Taipei since 1979, when it switched recognition to Beijing. But Taiwan is the 8th-largest trading partner of the United States, and Washington has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself in case of attack.