When the Cabinet nixed the term “comprehensive economic cooperation agreement” (CECA) last week, one thing was clear: The government is concerned that plans for an economic pact with Beijing face widespread skepticism — but is at a loss to respond.
Step one, it seemed to think, was to scrap the name CECA, which had been tarnished by criticism, and roll out a new label — “economic cooperation framework agreement” (ECFA). Government agencies have been instructed to use this term and the media are following suit.
But the government puts far too much stock in a name and will be disappointed to discover that a new label does not have the effect of waving a magic wand.
“ECFA” does have the advantage of distancing the prospective agreement from a pact between Hong Kong and Beijing called the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, or CEPA. The similarity between the acronyms CEPA and CECA has done no favors for the government’s efforts to win support for the plan — but it was hardly the main source of controversy.
The crux of the problem — and cause of widespread unease not just among opposition legislators but also the public — is very simple: It remains unclear what a CECA or ECFA with China would entail.
The apprehension over unknown provisions that would be difficult to reverse is compounded by the lack of transparency and oversight. There is no chance that the pact would be put to a referendum. Moreover, the government and legislature disagree over whether a deal with China should even be vetted by lawmakers before it is signed.
On Thursday, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) made it clear that the government should not treat the legislature as a rubber stamp. Wang criticized the Cabinet’s plan to send the deal to the legislature only after it has been signed. What would be the point of submitting the deal to lawmakers after it has been inked, Wang asked. The answer: giving lip service to checks and balances.
Although legislators would not have an opportunity to object to the details of the deal, the government would expect the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) majority to stand by the pact. This would allow the Cabinet to maintain that it was justified in signing an ECFA because most lawmakers later supported it.
Wang argued that allowing lawmakers to scrutinize the provisions of the pact before it is signed would help allay public concerns that the deal may not be in their best interests. But while debate and a vote in the legislature could satisfy a minority of the ECFA’s critics, much like tinkering with the pact’s name, it would not be enough to quell the controversy. With the KMT caucus’ absolute majority, there is cause for concern that the review would be one-sided and, in a worst-case scenario, that any resistance by KMT legislators would reflect jostling within the party rather than concern for the public interest.
Wang’s call for a sincere legislative review is nevertheless important. If the pact bypasses the legislature, this will strengthen the Cabinet’s power to ignore lawmakers on cross-strait agreements. The deals inked with China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait in November were sent to the legislature after they were signed and implemented by default without completing a legislative review.
The government can call an economic pact with China whatever it pleases. A new name is nothing to lose sleep over — but the possibility that this deal will be inked with or without the support of the public and legislators is.