Just as Taiwanese were worrying that US president-elect Joe Biden might shift US policy on China and revamp its relationship with Taiwan and Japan, the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world’s largest free-trade agreement, was formally signed on Nov. 15.
Pro-China academics and media have said the partnership would condemn Taiwan to being the “orphan of Asia,” but this is based on a myopic, deep-blue ideology. From a bird’s-eye view, the signing is positive for Taiwan.
When former US president Barak Obama took office in 2009, he inherited the US’ longstanding belief that a rising China would adopt liberal democracy and coexist with the free world.
As China took off, preparations for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) began. In March 2015, the UK, ignoring Obama’s opposition, joined the China-dominated bank, as did several European nations. In the end, the bank had 57 founding members, outdoing the US-dominated Asian Development Bank.
Beijing’s move angered Washington and it changed Obama’s China policy, leading to the US’ “pivot toward Asia” strategy.
In September 2015, China expert Michael Pillsbury published The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, in which he expressed regret over the US’ weak China policy. This might have contributed to US President Donald Trump’s win in 2016.
In other words, the AIIB’s establishment was a historic turning point that changed the direction of the world.
The RCEP has been seen as a major achievement in China’s pursuit of economic hegemony in Asia and its significance is of the same magnitude as the AIIB.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was elated about the agreement among China, Japan and South Korea, and at an APEC forum said that China would pursue membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The question is whether Xi’s clear expression of his intentions is to have an effect on Biden. The signing of the RCEP and Xi’s declared intent is likely to have consequences.
First, the signing of the RCEP confirmed China’s economic hegemony in East Asia and it should be a wake-up call for Biden, as it restricts attempts to adjust Trump’s anti-China policy and to decouple the US from China.
The less Biden does to adjust US China policy and the slower he implements changes, the better for Taiwan.
Second, the signing of the agreement means that the global economy is divided into an RCEP group of digital totalitarian states practicing state capitalism and a group of liberal democratic economies led by the US that opposes the China-dominated RCEP.
Competition between these groups is to become increasingly intense, and the importance of the Taiwanese supply chain within the Western group of free economies is to become increasingly clear — and that would benefit Taiwan in the long term.
Third, the US-led and China-led groupings are likely to move from competitive cooperation to full-on competition, before becoming strategic enemies.
During Biden’s presidency, the Asia-Pacific strategy and an East Asian version of NATO are to become vital links in the free world’s global deployments.
A bilateral trade agreement between Taiwan and the US, and free-trade agreements among Asia-Pacific nations are to follow.
This would allow Taiwan to break away from China’s attempt to isolate it, no longer making it an “orphan of Asia.”
The RCEP will benefit Taiwan — we just need to wait and see.
Huang Tien-lin is a former advisory member of the National Security Council.
Translated by Perry Svensson