For all its vaunted benefits, the growing economic relationship across the Taiwan Strait seems to be premised on false assumptions that could eventually derail dialogue and engender dangerous frustrations.
On one side is China, which has made no secret of its belief that increasing the flow of economic interaction and investment across the Strait would, according to some law of economic determinism, win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese and reconcile them to the idea of unification.
Despite claims by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration that cross-strait economic integration does not undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty, Beijing has consistently reminded the world that the process itself is a means to bring about unification.
Whether Ma and his officials believe their own claims or are too naive to see through Zhongnanhai’s strategy is beside the point, as in Beijing’s eyes the coveted end goal remains the same, regardless of Taipei’s complicity.
In Taiwan, many supporters of greater economic activity across the Strait, from farmers to leaders of large corporations, have also approached the process from the wrong angle. Remarks by Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Liu Chien-kuo (劉建國) during a small protest in Yunlin County against a visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) at the weekend perfectly illustrate this.
“We are still waiting for [Beijing] to finish buying the 1,800 tonnes of oranges it promised [to buy two years ago],” Lin said of expectations in the county, whose economy overwhelmingly depends on agriculture. “I think that what it comes down to is whether China really wants to help Taiwan’s economy and employment rate, or if it is all a scheme to press for unification.”
Such comments reflect a misreading of Beijing’s intentions and the raison d’etre of growing cross-strait economic activity. Not only does China have no desire to help Taiwan’s economy and employment rate, such expectations confer upon Beijing a paternalistic role that only bolsters its claim over Taiwan.
Nations do not engage in trade for reasons other than self-interest. The US, for example, did not sign the North American Free Trade Agreement to address unemployment in its Canadian and Mexican neighbors, but because liberalizing trade along that axis served its commercial interests. With China, the rationale for increased trade with Taiwan is a little more complex, as besides economic calculations — and perhaps even overarching them — is the undeniably political goal of unification. To believe anything else and to assume there are humanitarian ramifications to cross-strait liberalization is foolhardy.
As money flows increase, the false expectations that animate both sides will have to be rectified, the sooner the better, to mitigate the scope of disappointment when the veil is finally lifted.
China will have to realize that while Taiwanese are more than happy to trade, this does not signify they are willing to forsake their political system in the process. Its long history of independence, from its first baby steps into modernity under Japanese colonial rule to exposure to Western values, culminating in a vibrant democracy, has shaped Taiwan in a way that no economic interaction could ever erase entirely. All the money in China will not vanquish that sentiment that is the very foundation of Taiwanese identity, something polls have repeatedly demonstrated.
Conversely, Taiwanese must acknowledge that Beijing has no responsibility to improve Taiwan’s economy. One cannot claim sovereignty and expect other governments to give generously while not asking something in return.
Clarity on both sides is in order. The longer the two sides talk past each other, the more ingrained those false assumptions will be and therefore the more violent the backlash.
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