For some time now, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has said the government will seek to sign free-trade agreements (FTA) with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region after it signs an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China. The rationale is that somehow, after an ECFA is signed, Beijing will be more amenable to Taiwan signing FTAs with other countries.
It is inconceivable, Ma said recently, that in the entire region only Taiwan and North Korea — the two extremities of global integration — have yet to sign FTAs. True enough. Pyongyang, an isolationist and pseudo-communist regime, has done so by choice. By not providing any context to his statement, however, Ma is hinting that Taiwan is in the same situation for the same reasons, and implying his predecessors didn’t seek to sign FTAs with other countries.
The real barrier, of course, has always been Beijing, which has used blackmail and the threat of an economic slap in the face against any government that crosses certain lines on, among other subjects, Tibet and Taiwan. Aside from joining international organizations that require statehood, such as UN agencies, signing FTAs is also an act that symbolizes statehood.
In light of the Chinese delegation’s obstructionism at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, where Taiwan was barred entry as an observer and was forced to participate through non-governmental organizations — which were listed as being from “China” — there is no reason to believe that Ma’s cross-strait peace initiative, or even an ECFA, would compel Beijing to change its stance on “one China.”
What’s even more troubling is that Ma, once again, seems to ask us to take his word for it. What he does not do is show us why the road to FTAs passes through an ECFA. He has yet to provide a single document proving that Beijing would be willing to show flexibility on Taiwan signing trade pacts within the region after an ECFA is signed. He hasn’t even told us if Beijing has made such a promise.
Either he’s being lied to, or he’s lying. But precedents tell us that Ma’s expectations are ill-founded and likely never to be realized.
We mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that after an ECFA is signed, other countries in the region will suddenly be willing to risk “angering” Beijing by seeking to create closer economic ties with Taiwan. Another reason why Taiwan is alone in the pit with North Korea is that most countries in the region don’t have the guts to stand up to Beijing on Taiwan. There is no reason to believe that this would change after an ECFA is sealed.
If Beijing were to yield anything after an ECFA, it can be assumed that it would have to be under its “one China” principle — in other words, with terminology clearly stating that Taiwan is part of China, just as the trade pacts signed between Hong Kong and, say, New Zealand, were achieved under the ambit of the closer economic partnership agreement between China and the special administrative region.
And here lies the trap. For the first time, Taiwan could indeed find itself in a position where it can sign FTAs with other countries. But the rules and conditions would be dictated by Beijing, and however desirable those may be, Taiwan would be forced to enter into FTAs under the condition that it accepts the notion that it is part of China.