It’s official: Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) will hold a televised debate on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) on April 25.
After months of avoidance and foot-dragging, the two leaders will finally bring the issue into the nation’s living rooms and force everybody, regardless of political persuasion, to confront the tough questions that are raised by the proposed pact.
For Ma, this will be an opportunity to explain why the nation so desperately needs the cross-strait deal, as well as to shed much-needed light on the many shadowy corners that have characterized the negotiations so far. In poll after poll, Taiwanese have expressed frustration at not knowing enough about the ECFA deal, and time and again the Ma administration — primarily Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) — has blamed this lack of understanding on poor communication. So here’s your chance, Mr Ma, to resolve your administration’s communication problem.
As for Tsai, the debate will be an occasion to articulate the nation’s apprehensions and to force Ma to confront those fears. For Tsai to emerge as the “winner” in the debate, however, she will also have to present alternatives to an ECFA to show how the DPP would address the challenges posed by regional economic integration. In other words, this will be an opportunity for her to show that rather than simply being “against” something, the DPP actually has constructive ideas.
It is to be hoped, as well, that the participants will be able to put the ECFA talks in context. If it treats them in a vacuum, or purely from an economic point of view, the debate will only accomplish half of what it should. For there is no doubt that while, on the surface, the pact concerns narrow matters of trade (something the Ma administration has emphasized in its attempts to comfort the public), very real political implications lie behind it, including Taiwan’s sovereignty.
One question that Tsai should ask Ma is why his administration is willing to sign an ECFA with a country that, despite allegedly warming ties in the Taiwan Strait, maintains its military threat against Taiwan. Is this an instance of the contradictory policies inherent to large governments, or rather part of China’s well-honed united front strategy? Ma has often said he would make China dismantling the missiles it has aimed at Taiwan a precondition for negotiations; and yet, how many deals have been signed since he first made that comment, while the number — and deadliness — of those missiles keeps increasing?
Nations in a state of war do not sign free-trade agreements with one another. While there is speculation that Ma and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), might sign a “peace” agreement around 2012, without a demonstrated commitment on China’s part to stop threatening Taiwan, there would be nothing peaceful about it.
Why this matters now, in the context of a debate on an ECFA, is that the trade pact, along with everything else the Ma administration has signed with China in the past two years, is being negotiated with a belligerent partner. If both sides are not treated as equals, or if dishonesty is the strategy of one of the parties, an ECFA will not create a more prosperous Taiwan, but will rather be one of a series of acts of capitulation on Ma’s part that would all but obviate any “peace” agreement.
It will be Tsai’s responsibility to raise those questions and put them in their larger context. And it will be Ma’s to put such fears to rest.
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