Long before Sunday’s debate on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) argued that Taiwan cannot afford to be left out of increasing regional economic integration. Ma has made it clear that free-trade agreements (FTA) are a positive trend and that an ECFA would serve as a bridge with the region as ASEAN Plus One (China) and ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) come into force.
The actual impact of FTAs with China on smaller regional economies, however, is only beginning to be understood. Still, early signs show that it might be wise to adopt a careful “go slow” approach.
A mere four months after ASEAN Plus One came into force, an FTA between six founding members of the organization and China, some sectors — such as textiles and garments, tires, steel and footwear — are already suffering in countries such as Indonesia, one of the signatories. Some garment factories in Jakarta have already gone under as a result of the flood of cheap Chinese clothing that have poured into the country. In some cases, the new competition drove down prices to such an extent that local companies were forced to sell jackets for less than they cost to make.
The chairman of Indonesia’s National Workers Union has said the trade deal could cost as many as 7 million jobs.
Representatives of the sectors that are at risk from the trade pact have called on Jakarta to renegotiate some aspects of the FTA or slow down the lowering of tariffs on certain products, calls the Indonesian government appears reluctant to act upon.
Still, if pressure from workers in Southeast Asian countries becomes strong enough as the negative effects of the asymmetrical FTA become more apparent, those governments may be compelled to turn to Beijing and ask for remedial measures. In the name of good relations and to protect its long-term trade interests, it is not impossible that Beijing would show some willingness to accommodate its smaller partners. The key reason is that all the members of ASEAN Plus One and ASEAN Plus Three are sovereign countries recognized by Beijing.
When it comes to Taiwan, however, an ECFA — which appears to be intended as a first step in the gradual implementation of a full-blown FTA — is not being negotiated between two sovereign states, since Beijing does not recognize Taiwan.
The long-term implications are worrying. Even if, as Ma has promised, short-term measures are implemented to mitigate the negative impact of an ECFA on vulnerable sectors of the economy and even if Beijing makes initial concessions on the “early harvest” list, China is far less likely to show flexibility over time. This is largely because it will look at that discontent and address it as a domestic problem rather than one between states. In other words, the mechanisms that normally apply to FTAs between sovereign states will not do so when it comes to Taiwan. Consequently, Beijing is expected to be far less amenable to renegotiation or goodwill once the pact has been signed, especially in light of cross-strait liberalization as a means to accelerate its unification strategy.
An ECFA will not solve every problem arising from regional economic liberalization and will undoubtedly create new ones. Although Ma prefers to address the matter as if it were purely a question of economics, the fact the two negotiating entities are engaged in an asymmetrical relationship economically and politically means that resolving those challenges will be all the more difficult.