Wed, Nov 27, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan must deal with free trade

By Chen Hurng-Yu 陳鴻瑜

More than a year ago, China took the initiative in requesting the establishment of a free-trade zone with the member countries of the ASEAN.

To show its goodwill, and in a bid to assuage the doubts of some, Beijing made a concession on customs duties on agricultural products from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and other countries that greatly rely on agricultural exports.

China finally won the support of all the ASEAN states and signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation with the trade organization.

Similarly, Beijing was originally opposed to ASEAN's request for an agreed upon code of conduct in the South China Sea. After more than two years of negotiations, it eventually gave in -- due to developments in the regional situation, as well as the strength of its wish to establish the free-trade zone -- and signed the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

With such a give-and-take strategy, China and ASEAN successfully reached agreements since both stood to gain, in both economic and security terms.

The China-ASEAN agreements on economy and security certainly represent great progress in Beijing's efforts of recent years to maintain a peaceful international environment, which allows it to focus on developing its economy with all its strength.

China signed an agreement on military confidence-building in border areas with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan in April 1996, and a similar agreement with India concerning the Line of Actual Control in the Sino-Indian Border Areas in November of the same year. Later, in April 1997 it signed the Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Military Forces in the Border Areas with the afore-mentioned Central Asian countries.

In December 2000, it signed, with Vietnam, the Agreement on the Delimitation of the Beibu Bay Territorial Sea, the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelves. Today's China, in short, finds itself in much safer surroundings than in the past, having completed security negotiations and arrangements on its periphery -- apart from the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula.

The current stagnant state of cross-Strait relations is not a major security threat to China. At least, in contrast to the former KMT government (which wished to reclaim the mainland), the DPP government only wishes, at most, to separate itself from China and therefore constitutes no direct threat to Beijing.

As for the Korean Peninsula, China's northeast frontier should be safe as long as North Korea remains isolated or is not infiltrated by foreign forces.

Even if North Korea continues its "cross recognition" with the Western countries, it will not threaten China's border security -- since it has already developed a strong sense of nationalism and is unlikely to be used by the West.

China's breakthrough in winning strategic advantages in Southeast Asia through compromise and concession was therefore of considerable significance. The Spratly Islands issue is a territorial issue. But these islands are widely scattered and, in any case, tiny -- not to mention the fact that whether they contain any reserves of oil and natural gas has yet to be established.

Besides, the surrounding waters are full of hidden reefs that would hamper naval activity. The strategic value of such tiny islets is also limited.

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