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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen Wednesday expressed hope of beginning free trade talks with the United States, a long-sought goal that likely would further increase tensions between Washington and Beijing.
"Past months have shown us the importance of economic linkages and supply chain security for both Taiwan and the U.S.," Tsai said during a video presentation hosted by the Hudson Institute and Center for American Progress. "We must be clear-eyed on how we can move forward on an FTA. For too long, closer trade relations have been hindered by technicalities that account for just a small fraction of two-way trade."
Background: Her comments followed a recent visit by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan, which drew fire from Beijing — a sign of what to expect if free trade talks begin.
“China firmly opposes any official interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan,” said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, last week in reaction to Azar's visit. “China will take firm countermeasures in response to the U.S. wrong move.”
Taiwan has wanted a free trade agreement with the United States for years, a goal that enjoys some support among members of Congress, but which various administrations have declined to pursue.
That has also been the case under President Donald Trump, even though the 2016 Republican Platform seemed to endorse pursuing free trade talks with the island nation that China regards as a renegade province.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) recently raised the issue again in a set of written questions to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Trump's trade agenda.
"Taiwan has expressed its strong interest in a high-standard trade deal with the United States, which I believe would further economic and trade relations between our two countries," Cornyn wrote.
USTR says not ready yet: In his response, Lighthizer said the Trump administration wanted a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan, but the country's meat import regulations stand in the way.
"We still face longstanding trade barriers that restrict market access for U.S. beef and pork products, despite previous commitments by Taiwan to fix these problems. Resolving these issues will be critical to deepening our trade and investment relationship with Taiwan," Lighthizer said.
Tsai seemed to respond directly to that remark, as well as the U.S. contention that Taiwan's meat barriers are not based on sound science. "We want to work together to resolve these issues in a way that is safe for our consumers, and also consistent with established scientific standards."
"I believe that the people of Taiwan can see the value and wisdom in building closer economic relations with the U.S. And conversely, we hope that the U.S. recognizes the broader strategic implications such an agreement would undoubtedly have," Tsai added.
Tsai also highlighted two-way investment flows between the U.S. and Taiwan, noting that Google and Microsoft have "substantially increased their investments in Taiwan" over the the past year.
At the same time, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. has announced plans to build a state-of-the-art production facility in Arizona, she said.
What's next? USTR did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tsai's remarks.
The United States and Taiwan have a bilateral forum, known as the United States-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Council, to discuss trade issues and irritants.
However, USTR's latest report on Trump's trade agenda noted the TIFA Council had not met since 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama's administration.