It may have been inadvertent, but recent praise by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and US President Barack Obama for the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) cut through the smokescreen blown up by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration by directly pointing to its political impact.
Ever since the idea of a free-trade-like agreement between Taiwan and China was proposed, Ma and his government have emphasized time and again that the pact was purely economic in nature and had no political ramifications whatsoever. This position, stemming from necessary constraints, dovetailed with Ma’s promise not to enter political dialogue with Beijing during his term in office.
Though critics of the ECFA have not been deceived by these pronouncements and have repeatedly assailed it over its political ramifications, and despite open references to it by Beijing officials as an instrument of unification, Taipei has been unwavering in its claim that politics are extraneous to the agreement.
However, no sooner had Washington begun praising the trade agreement in terms of its political benefits than Taipei shifted gear and interpreted this as encouragement for extended dialogue with Beijing. Speaking at the US Department of State on Jan. 14, Clinton praised the ECFA and called for more dialogue and exchanges.
Five days later, the US-China Joint Statement issued during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) state visit to Washington stated that the US “applauded” the ECFA and “welcomed the new lines of communications developing between them [Taiwan and China],” adding that it looked forward to “efforts by both sides to increase dialogues and interactions in economic, -political and other fields.”
Amid all that praise lies an inadvertent landmine, namely Washington’s encouragement for “increased dialogues” in the political sphere.
Not only does this statement come close to contravening point six of Washington’s “six assurances” to Taiwan issued in 1982 to the effect that it “would not exert pressure on the ROC [Republic of China] to enter into negotiations with the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” but it also undercuts Ma’s promise not to begin talks on politics with Beijing.
Unfazed by this indiscriminate praise, the Presidential Office on Jan. 20 said it was pleased with Obama’s praise of the ECFA and its impact on relations and communications across the Taiwan Strait, adding that this was proof the international community approved of the trade agreement.
Washington’s indiscretion, if this is what it was, could arguably be blamed on the political necessities of the moment or a lack of understanding by Washington of the complexities of the political environment in Taiwan. Conversely, it could also be indicative of Washington’s ability to see the truth behind Ma’s wall of deception and its cognizance that the ECFA is primarily a political instrument.
By virtue of their respective positions, Obama and Clinton are primarily involved with matters at the strategic level, meaning that they have little time or energy to spend on the intricacies of foreign political development. However, lower-level officials and area specialists at the US Department of State and US National Security Council should be more attuned to such fine details and would know that, at least on Taiwan’s side, the ECFA has been promoted and sold as a purely economic entity.