The U.S. is the driver in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks and should take the lead in making Taiwan a part of it. Taiwan’s role as an important economic player in the Asia–Pacific would in part thus be preserved as far as its adherence to free-market ideas allows.

“If you look at Taiwan’s bilateral economic ties with the Asia Pacific, Taiwan has been very active,” said Kwei-Bo Huang, secretary general at the Association of Foreign Relations in Taiwan at a recent event at The Heritage Foundation co-hosted by the Taiwan Benevolent Association of America. “However, multilaterally Taiwan has been only occasionally visible.”

Taiwan is America’s 12th-largest trading partner. But panelist Scott Miller, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that in spite of Taiwan’s vast economic agenda, many stakeholders underestimate Taiwan’s economic strength.

Taiwan’s accession to TPP has the potential to springboard Taiwan’s expansive export market (which accounts for 70 percent of Taiwan’s economy). President Ma Ying-jeou has expressed his interest in joining TPP as soon as possible, which the Taiwanese participants reiterated. But there was, panelists allowed, a contradictory question of Taiwan’s readiness, both politically and economically.

Panelists agreed that China could pose a threat to Taiwan joining TPP. Huang noted that China has historically opposed Taiwan expanding its formal trade relationships with major trade partners such as the U.S., Japan, and the European Union. Panelists noted that Taiwan must undertake structural domestic reforms in preparation for TPP. In fact, Miller emphasized that Taiwan should focus on its domestic reform agenda regardless of whether it joins TPP in preparation for future economic integration. Unilateral liberalization has worked extremely well for other countries in the region; Miller cited Singapore. Yet another model the American panelists offered is using a free trade agreement to force domestic reform.

In spite of needed reforms, there is strong domestic and international support for Taiwan to join TPP. Tami Overby, vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that a recent survey found that 80 percent of Taiwanese believe that Taiwan should join TPP and 60 percent believe that Taiwan can meet TPP standards.

The Heritage Foundation conference took place in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, under which the U.S. has a special obligation to Taiwan’s security. Unless Taiwan can keep pace with regional economic integration, over the long run, its economic marginalization will jeopardize its security and autonomous decision-making capacity. TPP will help it peacefully address this issue.