A plan for a free trade agreement (FTA) between Taiwan and Australia was blocked due to Beijing’s political pressure exerted on Canberra, according to a former Australian official.

Julie Bishop, who only recently resigned as Australia’ foreign minister, told Fairfax Media that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conveyed to her over a series of meetings between 2017 and 2018 that China was opposed to Australia signing such an agreement with Taiwan.

"The Chinese government made it clear to me that circumstances had changed between Taiwan and China, and that China would not look favorably on Australia seeking to pursue a FTA with Taiwan, as New Zealand had done some years ago," Bishop said.

The Communist Party government in China has frozen relations with Taipei since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), whose Democratic Progressive Party government advocates independence for Taiwan, in 2016.

The Fairfax report adds to a long list of potential opportunities for international agreements and engagements that have been denied to Taiwan in recent years due to political pressure from Beijing, which considers self-governing Taiwan a part of its territory.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop can speak more freely now she is no longer in government.

Bishop’s revelation comes in the wider context of discussions about China’s interference in Australian politics, which has become the most contentious issue plaguing the relationship between Beijing and Canberra since 2017.

In her capacity as foreign minister from 2013 to August 2018, Bishop was one of the most vocal voices in Australia’s Liberal Party government that took a firm stance against Beijing’s aggressive expansions in the Western Pacific, and its attempt to interfere with Australia’s politics.

In 2017, Australian media reported a series of high-profile investigative stories about the Chinese Communist Party’s years-long attempt to influence and control Australia’s political institutions, businesses, and academia, as well as the Chinese students studying there. The reports dramatically uttered Australia’s perception about its relationship with China.

“Bishop is out of office. She can say things that she couldn't in office,” Ian Hall, professor of international relations at Australia’s Griffith University told The News Lens, “This is a bit of signaling… She's just adding more evidence [of Chinese interference] to the pile.”

Hall also said that there is a recognition that a FTA wouldn't necessarily improve trade or investment flows, and that there is still plenty of sympathy for Taiwan across both of Australia’s political parties and in the bureaucracy.

“The prospect of a Taiwan-Australia FTA is still there. It is just not being acted on,” Hall said.

Smaller New Zealand deal went through

The FTA Taiwan holds with New Zealand mentioned by Bishop was successfully concluded and signed in 2013 under the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), when cross-Strait ties were considerably warmer than is currently the case.

A FTA between Taiwan and Australia, which has been discussed as early as 2015, would be much more significant in scale than the one with New Zealand and hence comes with greater political ramifications.

Total trade in goods and services between Taiwan and Australia amounted to around A$13.5 billion (US$9.5 billion), according to Australia’s trade commission statistics. This would be almost six times more than Taiwan’s trade with New Zealand, which is only around NZ$2.2 billion (US$1.43 billion).

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Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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