President Xi Jingping
Credit: 2015 Alabastro Photography/Flickr

Last summer when the Democratic National Convention seemed to be overwhelmed by protesters carrying anti-TPP signs, leaders in Taiwan were thinking seriously about what steps and maneuvers they’d need to make in order to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The largest obstacle for them would have been opposition from the Chinese mainland, which would have impacted both their domestic unity on the issue and the willingness of other members to consider them. The idea wasn’t considered outlandish or infeasible, although no one thought it would be easy. The Americans were generally encouraging:

Former White House coordinator for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Matthew Goodman told the trade seminar that Taiwan would benefit “tremendously” from being a member of the TPP.

He said that membership would embed Taiwan more deeply in regional supply chains, drive the domestic reform process, reduce dependence on China, help the island shape the rules of the regional economic order, and become more integrated with the US and Japan.

Goodman said Taiwan was critical to US supply chain management.

However, he said that there would be no “free pass” and Taiwan would have to meet some tough conditions if it wanted to join the TPP.

Goodman cited long-standing agricultural issues and said there were technical barriers to trade that would have to be removed.

He said that Taiwan’s regulatory environment had been a problem, as had foreign-exchange issues.
Goodman said that from the US perspective there was a “trust gap and a credibility gap” and that the burden of proof was on Taiwan to show that it is willing to tackle these problems.

Of course, Matthew Goodman also assured the Taiwanese that he was 98 percent sure that the treaty would be ratified. Obviously, that all went up in smoke along with the hope that Taiwan would become less dependent on China and “more integrated with the US and Japan.”

Flash forward to today, and Taiwan’s position has deteriorated considerably.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen reacted angrily Tuesday to Panama’s decision to shift diplomatic ties to China, insisting that Taipei will never bow down to threats and intimidation from Beijing and is determined to uphold its sovereignty.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced on television Monday evening that he was establishing diplomatic ties with China and breaking with Taiwan, saying he was “convinced this is the correct path for our country.” He added that China constituted 20 percent of the world’s population, has the second-biggest economy and is the second-biggest user of the Panama Canal.

The move comes as Beijing steps up efforts to isolate Taipei internationally since last year’s election of Tsai.

To see how things are proceeding, consider that Nicaragua and the Dominican Republican are expected to soon follow Panama’s lead and that there are now only 20 countries that formally recognize Taiwan. Their isolation is having more and more practical implications every day.

For the first time in eight years, Taiwan was not invited to the annual assembly of the World Health Organization last month. It was also excluded from a global forum of the International Civil Aviation Organization last year. Both moves reportedly came at the insistence of Beijing, which has made clear its displeasure with Tsai’s reluctance to explicitly endorse the idea that there is only one China, encompassing the mainland and the island of Taiwan.

In the United States, opposition to the TPP was driven by the perception that the agreement would mainly benefit corporations and could undermine our national sovereignty while costing us jobs. It was rarely debated as a part of the Obama administration’s Asia Pivot and their desire to balance against China’s rising economic, political, and military power in the Pacific.

As for Trump, he continually berated China and said they were out-negotiating us and treating us like chumps. But one way to keep score of how the US is doing compared to China is to see how Taiwan is treated by the international community.

At the moment, their quasi-independence is increasingly rejected. That’s explicit in this Panama news:

“The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that only one China exists in the world, the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all China, and Taiwan forms an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” a joint statement from China and Panama read.

You don’t have to be a supporter of the TPP to see how its collapse was also a collapse of American influence in the Pacific. This is compounded now by an American presidency that is distracted and inept, unreliable and embarrassing for our allies.

Taiwan is suffering the consequences already, but it’s really America that is going to suffer the most in the end. Perhaps the Obama administration deserves a healthy share of the blame here for designing a trade pact that was flawed and couldn’t win support at home, but anyone who is concerned about our country’s position in the world and the health of our alliances should be very alarmed by what has happened and how it is starting to play out.

Trump said he’d stand up to China, but his catastrophically bad leadership is allowing China to roll up the score, especially with respect to Taiwan.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at