China has warned the United States against pursuing a trade deal with Taiwan after Washington signalled a possible resumption of economic talks with the self-ruled island.
Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, urged Washington on Tuesday to “stop any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, handle the Taiwan issue cautiously, and refrain from sending any wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces”.
China claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory, to be taken by force if necessary. In recent months, Beijing has increased the pressure on Taiwan, including sending fighter jets into the island’s air defence zone.
The US has meanwhile stepped up support for Taiwan, approving new arms sales, sending high-level delegations and most recently pledging to donate 750,000 doses of vaccines to bolster its fight against COVID-19 – all moves that have drawn Beijing’s ire.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added fuel to the fire on Monday when he told a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, that discussions would soon begin on a trade deal.
“I know we are engaged in conversations with Taiwan, or soon will be, on some kind of framework agreement,” Blinken said when he was asked about the position of President Joe Biden’s administration on a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan.
The diplomat also said the US was “committed to the proposition that Taiwan must have the means to defend itself”.
“We’ve continued to provide significant equipment and sales to Taiwan for that purpose,” he added. “We have real concerns about the increased aggression that the government in Beijing has shown toward Taiwan.”
Asked about Blinken’s comment, a spokesperson for the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) office said it has “no meetings to announce at this time. It added, however, that “the United States believes it is important to continue strengthening our bilateral trade relationship with Taiwan”.
A spokesman for Taiwan’s representative office in Washington said they were “working to engage in discussions with USTR, which will hopefully lead to progress in our bilateral trade relationship”.
Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US, said Blinken’s comment was a signal Washington was likely to move forward with a resumption of Trade Investment Framework Talks (TIFA) with Taiwan that have not been held since the administration of former President Barack Obama.
However, she said the Biden administration had probably not made a decision on whether to take the much larger step of pursuing a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan.
“Senior Biden administration officials have been encouraging USTR to hold a round of the TIFA talks, and Taipei is eager to do this as soon as possible,” Glaser said, adding that China was likely to oppose a TIFA resumption out of concern that the talks could eventually lead to a free trade agreement and embolden other countries, such as the United Kingdom, to launch trade negotiations with Taiwan.
“China also will see such talks as part of a Biden strategy to strengthen ties with Taiwan and what they see as a diminishing US commitment to One China,” she said, referring to the longstanding US policy of recognizing Beijing rather than Taipei.