A great deal of talk that goes on about Taiwan involves a degree of self-deception, which, while being convenient, prevents decisionmakers from seeing reality and fleshing out policies to secure the nation’s future. This was made all too clear at a conference in Taipei yesterday, where academics and officials from Taiwan, the US and Japan discussed the trilateral dialogue, with a strong emphasis on regional trade and integration.
From the presentations given by several panelists, one would conclude that Taiwan’s participation in East Asian economic integration is almost a fait accompli, thanks in part to the more stable relations across the Taiwan Strait and the signing in June 2010 of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).
National Security Council (NSC) Secretary-General John Deng (鄧振中) conceded during a keynote speech that there had been political “bumps in the road” between Taipei and Beijing and he also vaunted the virtues of the ECFA and other agreements signed between the two sides under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), adding that economic relations remained strong.
Clearly, under Deng’s interpretation of the relationship with China, economics and politics are two distinct phenomena, with the latter having no influence on the former. One can only remain so optimistic through a conscious decision to ignore reality. As former NSC secretary-general Su Chi (蘇起) admitted at a different setting last week, the ECFA was not purely economics and had –– surprise, surprise –– political ramifications. And those politics are part of Beijing’s concerted efforts to pull Taiwan ever closer within its sphere of influence so as to make ultimate “reunification” unavoidable.
Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Mark Chen (陳唐山), who spoke first in the morning session, was right on the mark when he said that while economic integration is the future, Taiwan must approach the matter with caution given the unique situation it faces vis-a-vis China. Given this situation, Taiwanese negotiators must be aware that Taiwan’s efforts to participate in regional trade blocs will not occur in an apolitical vacuum, but rather in an environment where China, more than ever, exerts tremendous political influence which could be directly correlated with Taiwan’s stalled growth and industrial development. The Taiwan “miracle,” in fact, occurred at a time when China was comparatively much weaker. Now the “little dragon” is suffering and it needs to find a way out of its cage.
Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, most panelists, either out of lack of understating of Taiwan’s precarious position or a desire not to confront reality, focused on the nuts and bolts of multilateral free-trade agreements; the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), supply-chain security, cyberthreats and so on. While those topics are indeed important and of interest, they are ultimately meaningless when it comes to addressing the challenges ahead for Taiwan.
Most of the speakers spoke as if Taiwan were not facing an irredentist threat or the very high likelihood that Beijing will sabotage any effort by Taiwan to sign a major trade deal with an economic partner, let alone join a multilateral organization such as the TPP, which currently excludes China. One could counter that Taiwan was able to join APEC, but here again, it did so in 1991 when China had yet to “rise.”
Rather than act as if Taiwan’s situation were normal, Taiwanese negotiators and future conferences should instead seek to come up with strategies to work around the hurdles that China is expected to throw Taiwan’s way –– and the earlier such measures are discussed, the better. The longer Taiwan waits to take action, the more difficult it will be for it to catch up with other regional economies. It’s already lagging, what with its first negative foreign direct investment inflow in more than four decades.
It should also be made clear that without a full commitment by the US and Japan, Taiwan’s chances of earning the position it deserves within the future global trade architecture will be very slim.