Let’s compare notes on two discourses, one implemented in 1979 and another that emerged soon after President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration proposed signing an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China.
The first is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), whose Section 2b(4) states that it is the policy of the US “to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
The second comes from Ma and his Cabinet, which have repeatedly said that signing an ECFA with China could help normalize cross-strait economic and trade ties and prevent Taiwan from being marginalized in the international trade arena. The concept was pushed further earlier this month, with TV ads promoting an ECFA claiming that if Taiwan failed to sign the trade pact, it would sink and end up isolated like North Korea.
Officials in the Ma administration also claim that the entry into force of the ASEAN-China free-trade agreement (FTA) and ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) also threatens Taiwan’s competitiveness within those trade blocs. The only remedy, we are told, is an ECFA with China.
What these officials, from economists all the way up to Ma, don’t tell us is that this so-called marginalization is not the natural outcome of regional free trade but, rather, politics, pure and simple. Under normal circumstances, the emergence of regional FTAs would not threaten individual economies because all could decide to join, or to sign countervailing FTAs on a case-by-case basis. This, however, doesn’t apply to Taiwan and the reason for this is simple: Beijing’s obstructionism. Under normal circumstances, Taiwan would be free to join ASEAN Plus Three or sign FTAs with regional economies, but Beijing has used its growing economic and political clout to deter countries from doing so.
This shows — and this brings us back to the spirit of the abovementioned section in the TRA — that rather than making decisions free of external interference, Taipei is being compelled to do so. In simple terms, this means: Sign an ECFA with China, whose impact on Taiwan’s sovereignty is uncertain, or else be marginalized, with the promise of continued pressure by Beijing on other countries to block the signing of FTAs with Taiwan. The latter situation would represent a form of embargo, even without the threat of force, which compels us to adopt definitions of this coercive tool that better reflect today’s realities.
The reason why the Ma administration has pushed for an ECFA so actively while ignoring calls for further consultations or more protracted negotiations is that it has been pushed into a corner by Beijing. The administration’s choices are not being made in the best interest of Taiwan, but rather because, in the current situation, an ECFA would be the least nefarious option. This is coercion, pure and simple.
Rather than fight and seek to awaken its allies to this underhanded assault on the right of Taiwanese to determine their own future, the Ma administration has played along with Beijing’s strategy. All along, it has been Beijing setting the agenda, leaving Taipei little choice but to serve as a poster boy by propagandizing the virtues of the trade agreement.