President’s credibility on the line with ECFA

By Jerome Keating  / 

Tue, Jun 15, 2010 - Page 8

Any fool nation can sign a trade agreement with China, if it gives Beijing everything it wants. The question of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) is not a matter of trade with China; that’s a no-brainer. Rather, the question is how and under what conditions an agreement is signed. In the case of Taiwan, a potential pact is an issue of the competency and credibility of its president.

A well known visiting professor of international trade negotiations put it this way: “If any of my graduate students proposed entering a trade agreement of such serious proportions as ECFA and ... set a deadline for negotiations ... I would fail him.”

Yet here was President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) saying the country must sign an ECFA with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by the end of this month. This raises serious questions about Ma’s competency.

No one is against trade with China, nor does anyone think Taiwan can pretend to ignore China, especially as it is already one of China’s biggest trade and investment partners. So why is Ma saying that Taiwan will be marginalized if it doesn’t get on board with a non-transparent ECFA by the end of the month?

Taiwanese and international academics, think tanks and the public have been consistently calling for a cautious and transparent approach, public input, as well as a full analysis and examination of the risks and dangers, but Ma has ignored such calls.

To make it worse, Ma keeps changing his position. He said that an ECFA with China must come first; it will lead to free-trade agremeents (FTAs) with other countries; then he changed that to “an ECFA should lead to” and then “it might lead to.”

Mixed messages abound. China countered by saying that an ECFA leading to other FTAs is not even on the table. The US, however, disagrees and says that there is no need for an ECFA to precede an FTA with it. Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) suggested that Taiwanese businesses should pull back from China, but Ma says push on; ECFA is the key; it must be signed by the end of this month, but why?

Ma’s insistence resembles the rushed agreement on US beef imports last fall. The resulting scandal was just one in a long list of miscalculations: the Maokong Gondola, the botched Wanhu MRT line, the failed Nanjing West Road Circle revival, Typhoon Morakot, the slighting of Aborigines, etc. Aside from some inconsequential matters and photo opportunities, it is difficult to find any evidence of competence at all.

Ma’s tank has been running on empty for some time. Only the gas fumes created by making new promises to cover unfulfilled undertakings seem to keep him going. This brings up another list: Unfulfilled promises. What of the promise to divest the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of its ill-gotten assets? That was made and vanished in 2005, along with the promise to deliver arms sales. What of the 2008 presidential campaign “6-3-3” pledge? It was replaced by a promise of big-spending Chinese tourists who would turn the economy around. That was followed by an ECFA and a “golden decade.” What promise will follow an ECFA?

Ma has been out of his depth since he became Taipei mayor. The signs were there early on when a devoted KMT supporter committed suicide at City Hall, but his decomposing body was not discovered for six months.

Who was in charge? This was management by promise and neglect. It was the illusion of management created by public relations and hype. Little wonder that more and more Taiwanese are uneasy with Ma’s demand that an ECFA be signed by the end of thus month.

Is Taiwan’s economy, sovereignty and nationhood the next corpse to be found sometime after an ECFA is signed?

Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.