Democracy dams the China flood

By Lai I-chung 賴怡忠  / 

Fri, Jan 01, 2010 - Page 8

A significant precedent was set during the fourth round of talks between Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林).

In the talks, a proposed agreement on avoiding double taxation, one of the four items on the agenda, was shelved.

After the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) poor showing in the three-in-one elections early last month, this failure was yet another blow to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

More importantly, in the rush to secure an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), Ma met opposition from the public and opened himself to being out-maneuvered by Beijing.

The necessity of holding referendums on cross-strait talks is clear: It is essential that the government seek domestic consensus and provide transparency in future.

Taiwan’s democracy has, after all, allowed us to keep talks on unification, something that China is intent on, at arm’s length.

On the night before Chen’s arrival in Taiwan, the Ministry of Finance was ­extolling the ­virtues of a double taxation agreement, saying how determined it was to see the agreement signed. Less than 48 hours later, however, the agreement was on the shelf, put there by public opinion and businesspeople.

This would not have been possible, however, had the government not been forced to report to the legislature in an attempt to bring about negotiations, thus giving affected groups the chance to express their view to the government through their legislators.

That this is what happened the first time a report was submitted to the legislature raises suspicions that the previous nine agreements, which were never so submitted, will be problematic in the same way.

Why else would they have been so ineffective?

Clearly, then, we can only be sure that talks with China will be in Taiwan’s interests if we are allowed to observe in an open and democratic manner, how they progress.

The talks did not falter because of the objections of China-based Taiwanese businesspeople alone.

Chinese leaders can see that Ma is obsessed with signing an ECFA, and they know that the double taxation agreement is essential to its success or failure.

This hands Beijing a carrot to dangle to bring Ma to unification talks.

China’s biggest concern over the KMT’s poor showing in the recent elections is that it does not want to see Ma diverted from his pro-unification path. Chen was clearly asked to sound out the Ma administration’s resolve on this issue.

It was evident in everything he did and said: Chen asked to visit the area struck by Typhoon Morakot in August; he used a term of respect when referring to Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Chairperson Lai Shin-yuan (賴幸媛) during an official meeting; finally, he gave the right answers to the government’s concerns over the missile issue.

Chiang has said the ECFA talks should not be delayed. ARATS Deputy Chairman Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中), on the other hand, said there was no timetable for ECFA talks, adding that they had nothing to do with politics.

Rather than trying to play down the political element of an ECFA, it seems that China is trying to undermine Ma’s idea of dealing with economic issues first and political issues later.

The double taxation issue is the most directly related to an ECFA.

If it is possible in negotiations to sign three agreements but block the fourth, what is to stop China from sabotaging an ECFA, the very agreement the Ma administration has set its sights on?

We should expect China to push hard to discuss unification.

Furthermore, with the government’s record of both appeasing and being intimidated by China, it is likely that ECFA talks will coincide with political negotiations.

Beijing will scrutinize the degree to which Ma compromises on the unification talks and gauge how much it will need to give in return over an ECFA. Can the case for holding public referendums on cross-strait talks be clearer?

Our democracy is the only thing standing between us and Beijing’s determination to hold negotiations on unification.

Lai I-chung is an executive member of Taiwan Thinktank.

TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER