At the beginning of this year, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was busy promoting the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that it was planning to sign with China, touting the improved economic relations and political contacts it would bring. The KMT was also optimistic that the ECFA, once signed, would be seen as a major political achievement and boost its candidates’ chances in the year-end special municipality elections.
This is a textbook case of using foreign relations to influence domestic elections. Examples from overseas include the invasion of Iraq and adoption of the euro, both of which had a rallying effect for the governing parties in at least some of the countries involved.
In Taiwan’s case, however, the ECFA’s hoped-for positive effect on the KMT’s electoral prospects has been trumped by controversies over the Taipei International Flora Exposition. Nationally significant cross-strait issues have been completely sidelined by questions of competence in local governance. Is it just that voters in greater Taipei are not sophisticated enough, or are cross-strait issues no longer as decisive as they once were?
In the past, people’s identification as Taiwanese or Chinese and their support for Taiwanese independence or unification have been the central themes of political alignment and competition in Taiwan. When these issues came to the fore, they rearranged Taiwan’ party-political spectrum, and they can still mobilize a lot of people on both sides of the political divide. Politicians and their parties always vie to show who cares most for Taiwan.
However, now we have the ECFA, which clearly brings the two sides of the Taiwan Strait into more intimate contact. Why, in the run-up to this year’s elections, is there so little interest in it? It certainly is a disappointment for the KMT. The local nature of the municipal elections must be a factor, but does it also signify a sea change in Taiwanese attitudes about cross-strait relations?
The key point is that cross-strait economic ties under the present KMT administration are no longer a question of national orientation. Instead, they have become a matter of material interests. Although the ECFA does have unspoken political implications, its clauses mostly concern cutting import tariffs. China’s willingness to concede benefits to Taiwan points to the fact that cross-strait relations at the present stage are all about what Taiwan can get out of China. No matter whether it be purchase groups led by Chinese provincial chiefs or the “cultural ECFA” proposed by ministers of culture from the two sides, all cross-strait initiatives at this stage are driven by economic determinism. On the Chinese side, the more dependent Taiwan’s economy becomes on China, the easier it will be to integrate politically.
The problem is that if cross-strait economic relations become a matter merely of special interests, then their effect on Taiwan’s domestic affairs may no longer be one that fits the conventional framework of pro-unification pan-blue versus pro-independence pan-green forces. In fact, this new situation could lead to a re-division of political territories between the pan-blue and pan-green camps. That’s because the redistribution of wealth and deepening class differences brought about by the ECFA are not going to neatly coincide with existing differences between ethnic and linguistic groups, pan-blue versus pan-green or north versus south.
The division between those who benefit from the agreement and those who lose out, and the latter’s resentment and sense of being exploited, may come to replace the current divisions. This helps to explain why the ECFA factor has been sidelined in the run-up to November’s elections.
Hsu Yung-ming is an assistant professor of political science at Soochow University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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