Following the signing of a cross-strait service trade agreement in Shanghai on June 21, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been voicing strong opposition. However, a close look at sectors in which the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have opened up reveals that China has opened up 80 items to Taiwan — more than it pledged to do when it joined the WTO — while Taiwan has opened up 64 items to China — mostly equal to or less than Taiwan promised when it joined the WTO. With respect to the overall results of the negotiations, China has clearly made concessions, while Taiwan is getting more than it is giving away.
There are bound to be winners and losers as a result of any free-trade agreement (FTA). In this particular case, business sectors that are likely to suffer a greater impact, such as hairdressing and printing, are asking the opposition parties to help them out.
The government, for its part, has not done enough to assess the agreement’s potential impact on business, or to communicate with business owners, so the wave of protests comes as no surprise.
The DPP has taken up position on the front line, saying that the cross-strait service trade agreement will have an impact on 7 million people’s livelihoods. The party has pledged to fight the agreement all the way.
However, let us not forget what happened in 2010, when the DPP led 150,000 people on a protest march to oppose signing the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). DPP lawmakers even resorted to fisticuffs when the legislature held a vote on the pact, but the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) still used its majority to push through approval of the ECFA.
As it turned out, when last year’s presidential election came around, the DPP needed to show that it was not going to change the “status quo” in cross-strait relations if its candidate got elected. So it promised to respect the ECFA and take on all rights and responsibilities.
Since then, the DPP has followed a fixed pattern in reacting to any cross-strait agreement signed by the KMT government. It says a big “no” to all such agreements before they are signed, but once they have been inked, agrees to abide by them. That is how the DPP reacted to the ECFA and to the opening up of cross-strait transport and communication links.
It is foreseeable that it will proceed in the same way in relation to the cross-strait service trade agreement and indeed to Taiwan and China’s establishment of mutual representative offices.
Why can the DPP never stick to its guns? Why does it always end up abandoning its original position for the sake of winning elections?
The main reason is that it is difficult to weigh up the pluses and minuses of any proposed agreement. To make matters worse, once an agreement is signed, the political pressures associated with it will go into reverse, making it very hard for a candidate who originally opposed the FTA to go on doing so.
Before an FTA is signed, businesses that stand to benefit tend to keep their approval to themselves and not make too much of a fuss about it, or speak out in defense of the government. So, one tends not to hear many voices in favor of the agreement.
In contrast, businesses that stand to lose out will be keen to link up with opposition parties and loudly object to the government, thus amplifying opposition.
However, once an FTA is signed it becomes a fait accompli, the losers in the business world do not make much effort to overturn the agreement and quickly quieten down.
In contrast, businesses that do well out of the agreement rapidly form a vested interest group that loudly opposes any candidate who might intend to overturn it, putting politicians under considerable pressure.
Still more importantly, the cross-strait service trade agreement is linked to Taiwan’s prospects for joining the proposed ASEAN Plus Six free-trade zone.
China is the biggest country in the ASEAN Plus Six and therefore has the biggest say. It has long since made the deregulation of cross-strait trade and investment a precondition for Taiwan’s participation in ASEAN Plus Six. Even if this in unfair to Taiwan, it is an international reality that the nation has to face up to.
Government and opposition parties have a common understanding about the need for Taiwan to join ASEAN Plus Six in order to spread its overseas investment risk and avoid becoming economically marginalized.
On the one hand, the DPP thinks that joining is very important, but on the other hand, the party is against the cross-strait service trade agreement. How can it justify these contradictory positions?
Unfortunately, the DPP is very likely to slip once again into the negative cycle of saying a big “no” to the agreement before it is signed, but agreeing to abide by it once it is in force. The party just wants to show that “Taiwan won’t let China push it around” and “Taiwan is against tying the ASEAN Plus Six issue to the ECFA.” The problem is that opposition is all very well, but if you cannot do something, you cannot do it.
The outcome of all this is likely to be that the DPP backtracks, just as it did before. This will only reinforce the impression people already have: When it comes to cross-strait affairs, the DPP is all talk and no action.
Julian Kuo is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Julian Clegg