Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Taiwan Cedes China Markets To South Korea

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 5, 2014

Ratifying a pact with China is the first step to diversified trade.

Taiwan’s leaders have warned for years that economic isolation will damage the nation’s competitiveness. Now their worst fears may be coming true, and the consequences of resisting freer trade and economic reform are becoming clear.

Later this year China and South Korea plan to finalize a free-trade agreement that will give most South Korean products zero-tariff entry into the mainland. That’s a problem for Taiwan because both countries count China as their largest trading partner, and their exporters compete head-to-head. Between 50% and 80% of Taiwan’s exports—from petrochemicals to steel, textiles to machinery—overlap with South Korea’s.

If the deal goes through as expected, roughly 2% to 5% of all of Taiwan’s exports to China could be replaced by South Korean products, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Businesses with thin profit margins such as makers of flat panels and machinery are at risk of being priced out of the mainland market.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s latest trade pact with China signed last year sits in limbo after the student-led “sunflower movement” stymied its ratification by the legislature this spring. Protesters stoked anxieties that Taiwan is in danger of being swallowed up by China as its businesses become increasingly dependent on the mainland.

It’s certainly true that the two economies are deeply intertwined; 80% of Taiwan’s foreign investment and 40% of its exports go to the mainland. However, placing obstacles in the way of trade and investment won’t solve the problem.

Since China is an integral part of global supply chains, Taiwan only hurts itself if it preserves barriers to crossStrait trade. Beijing has also signalled it will lobby against Taiwan’s participation in multilateral pacts such as the TransPacific Partnership if Taipei doesn’t first liberalize with China. So the road to less reliance on China paradoxically runs through Beijing.

Taiwan has made some progress on bilateral trade. But pacts with Singapore and New Zealand over the past year, while welcome, govern less than $30 billion in annual twoway exchange. A South Korea-China FTA threatens up to $49 billion of Taiwan’s exports, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Ratifying the cross-Strait services pact now in limbo would pave the way for a goods trade agreement. It would also show that Taipei has the ability to ratify and implement trade accords it has signed.

In the meantime, Taipei has started to liberalize the domestic economy in line with reforms required by TPP. That deal currently involves 12 nations and 40% of the world’s output. Neither Taiwan nor South Korea currently participates in the negotiations, but both have expressed interest in joining.

Here, too, Seoul has the advantage, having already signed a free-trade agreement with the U.S. with an eye on many of the stringent TPP requirements. If Taiwan rewrites outdated regulations and rolls back restrictions on investment, it can promote domestic competitiveness and signal that Taipei is serious about joining the TPP.

But first Taiwan’s lawmakers have a chance to use a special legislative session this week to pass a bill promised to protesters to monitor cross-Strait treaties, and then ratify the cross-Strait services trade pact. As trade barriers among Taiwan’s neighbors fall, failing to do so will further isolate the island.

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