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Free Trade, Fair Trade, Formosan Trade

12 Aug 2010

The Taiwanese peoples’ muted voice has made it to the microphone again. Like all cyclical occurrences, their reappearance often signals a time of controversy. This time, the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has many a native and democrat up in arms over President Ma Ying-Jeou’s attempt at greater cross-strait connections with mainland China.

Prominent democrats, including Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the editorial board of Taiwan News, have raised questions about the ECFA’s implications for sovereignty and specific economic details of the forthcoming agreement, signed in June but yet to be ratified by Taiwan’s parliament. The Taiwan News noted:

The DPP and TSU have indeed warned that the ECFA would accelerate the outflow of Taiwan manufacturing and jobs to the People’s Republic of China, affect the jobs of millions of Taiwan citizens, worsen inequalities of wealth and income and of a loss of economic autonomy and even political sovereignty if the pact is signed.

The ECFA is a nearly a free trade agreement in all but name, FTAs generally understood to be between 2 or more independent countries. China, of course, has long refused to recognize Taiwan as a separate body. The ECFA would open up a wide range of goods and services that could be exchanged without tariffs from textiles to banking to air transportation.

In the U.S., the Taiwanese opposition party (DPP) and those who are skeptical of increasing ties with the mainland have found refuge in Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Robert Andrews (D-NJ). Speaking at a briefing on Capitol Hill, Ros-Lehtnin used strong language to condemn the ECFA (video), calling it a “Trojan horse,” and Andrews echoed similar concerns that it was “more of a cage than a framework.” Both praised an alternative Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Back on the Formosan island, President Ma’s response has been that such a framework is essential to maintaining the ROC’s future economic relevance in the world and among its East Asian rivals. Other leaders in the ruling Kuomintang party see the concerns of opposition parties DPP and the Taiwan Solidarity Union as little more than scare tactics. Ma defended the ECFA in a televised debate with DPP Chairwoman Tsai by saying that Taiwan had no “other option when the other countries in the Asian region are forming alliances with each other,” the Bangkok Post reports.

Ms. Tsai responded by calling such arguments the “wrong logic”; fierce debate continued in the Taiwanese legislature throughout July with outbursts including the throwing of trash, paper, water and a clock. Two lawmakers, one from each side of the aisle, were hospitalized.

Given the history of the ROC’s attempts at détante with the mainland and its precarious international standing with limited American backing, defenders of democracy and free enterprise have more than a little reason to be skeptical – to say the least. A report published by the Taiwanese parliament at the end of July now warns of the ways the PRC may use the ECFA as economic leverage for its political ends – namely reunification. While Taiwanese economic interests certainly would benefit from freer trade with the mainland, the PRC’s potential ulterior motives such as discouraging FTAs between Taiwan and other Asian countries make the long term benefits both politically and economically risky. To move forward without taking into account such risks will not serve the interests of the Taiwanese people.

Taiwan has built its international reputation on being an open and free democracy. President Ma ought to consider the value of maintaining that strong republican foundation before compromising it for mere economic gains.

Nathan Bullock is a Fulbright Fellow based in Singapore, researching human and cultural geography, urbanization, and critical studies. You can find accounts of his adventures at East Coast Elitist.

[image via ACUS]

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