President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is a man in a hurry. He is pulling out all the stops to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China before a self-imposed June deadline.
The ECFA propaganda machine moved into top gear this week following last Sunday’s debate with Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), in which Ma has widely been regarded to have performed better.
During a press conference with foreign reporters a couple of days later, Ma’s answers seemed to suggest that absolutely every other government policy is now on hold until an EFCA is signed.
Why the rush?
The official reason is that the ASEAN Plus One (the one referring to China) trade bloc that came on line at the turn of the year is affecting the nation’s competitiveness, so Taiwan needs an ECFA to counter it.
Yet the ASEAN Plus One has already been in effect for nearly five months and Taiwan’s economic outlook gets rosier by the quarter, with sales, export orders and production in some cases setting new records.
Moreover, Tsai — a specialist in economic affairs — said during Sunday’s debate that ASEAN Plus One would have little effect because Taiwan’s main competitors are Japan and South Korea, and they are not yet part of the bloc.
So with the economic rationale for an ECFA on seemingly shaky ground, what other reasons could the Ma government have for its rush to sign the pact?
For answers, we need to look at Ma’s present situation and Taiwan’s election cycle. Midway through his four-year term and extremely unpopular, Ma is casting around for a life preserver after his pre-election promises of economic growth were torpedoed by the global financial crisis.
Yet, as mentioned, the economy is already starting to rebound, and will likely continue to rise as the world emerges from the meltdown’s aftermath.
Ma’s haste results from his desire to link the economic recovery to the signing of an ECFA. Any delay to the ECFA plan and it will be all too obvious the economy’s upward trend has nothing to do with the pact.
He is betting everything on the electorate believing that signing an ECFA was the policy masterstroke that brought economic recovery, and that this will deliver him another four years in the Presidential Office.
Once an ECFA is signed, two years may not be enough time for traditional industries to fully feel the pact’s ill effects, but it will buy Ma enough time to achieve two of his major goals: bringing Taiwan ever closer to China, in line with his party’s charter, while hoodwinking the public into thinking closer ties with Beijing have resulted in economic prosperity for all.
Although Ma and his officials have repeatedly said that an ECFA does not involve politics, the rush to sign it is entirely driven by political considerations.
It is a good plan, and in light of the last week, one that looks increasingly likely to succeed.
Those opposed to Taiwan’s eventual unification with China need to come up with a similarly well-crafted plan, and fast, if they are to deconstruct this myth, foil Ma’s plot and put the brakes on the ECFA juggernaut.
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