Senior trade officials from Taiwan and the United States have discussed the resumption of long-stalled talks that could lead to a free-trade agreement – a move that would be certain to anger Beijing.
US trade representative Katherine Tai spoke to her Taiwanese counterpart John Deng online on Thursday as the two governments moved to restart the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks that were discontinued under the Trump administration.
“Ambassador Tai and Minister Deng committed to the convening of the 11th TIFA Council meeting under the auspices of the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States [the two bodies that represent the respective governments in the absence of formal diplomatic ties],” the Office of the US Trade Representative said in a statement on Thursday.
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“Ambassador Tai emphasised the importance of the US-Taiwan trade and investment relationship and explained the Biden-Harris administration’s worker-centred trade priorities,” the statement said.
“Ambassador Tai also expressed the United States’ continued interest in working together with Taiwan on issues of common concern in multilateral organisations.”
The statement did not provide further details of what else the two had discussed and did not specify when the TIFA talks would resume.
Deng’s office was not immediately available for comment.
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Earlier this week US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that the two sides would soon resume talks, but did not say whether Washington ultimately wanted a free-trade deal.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has protested against any politically significant exchanges between Washington and Taipei.
Officials in Beijing have previously said such exchanges would send the wrong signals to Taiwanese independence forces, and mainland Chinese observers have warned that the closer engagement between Taipei and Washington of recent years will fuel calls for Beijing to retake the island by force.
Earlier on Thursday, both Taiwan’s economic and foreign ministries cautiously welcomed the prospect of resuming the talks, which date back to 1994 when the sides signed the framework agreement that give them their name.
“It’s a positive development and message. We are actively seeking to resume TIFA talks with the US,” the economics ministry said, referring to Blinken’s comments.
The ministry said it was optimistic about high-level talks resuming as the ministry and the island’s trade negotiation office have been discussing the issue with the US.
“The economics ministry will continue to deepen Taiwan-US trade relations and hope the US side will agree to swiftly resume TIFA talks to discuss trade issues of mutual concern, thereby paving the way for the signing of a US-Taiwan bilateral trade agreement,” it said.
Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said the island had long had close trade ties and exchanges with the US.
“Through the existing amicable communication channels, we will actively push for the resumption of Taiwan-US TIFA talks,” she said.
TIFA talks serve as a forum for the US and other governments to meet and discuss issues of mutual interest with the objective of improving opportunities for trade and investment.
Topics for consultation and possible further cooperation include market access, labour issues, the environment, protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights, and, where appropriate, capacity building.
Taiwan and the US held 10 high-level TIFA talks between 1994 and October 2016.
In the last meeting, the two sides discussed agriculture, regional cooperation, intellectual property rights, trade barriers and transparency.
But the talks stopped under the Trump administration because trade representative Robert Lighthizer regarded Taiwanese blocks on US exports as an unfair trade practice and his main focus was a broad trade deal with Beijing.
Some supporters of Taiwan in the US Congress have urged the Biden administration to sign a trade deal with Taiwan.
But a senior Biden administration official said the administration had yet to decide on that, telling The Wall Street Journal: “If we resume dialogue, it would first be about catching up.”
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