There is no reason to oppose a debate on the service trade agreement, but the pan-green camp should be vigilant so they do not walk into yet another trap set by pro-Chinese media outlets and academics.
The pan-blue camp has said that the reason for proposing a debate is that it would promote an understanding of the agreement’s importance to Taiwan. This reason in itself is a trap, because it is a clever way of telling the public that the agreement really is very important. Yet if it really is so important, then what is there to debate?
In the same way, the statement that is so often bandied about by both the pan-blue and the pan-green camps that they want to clarify the agreement’s advantages and disadvantages for industry is also a trap, because that would only be beneficial to the agreement’s supporters and not its opponents. A debate on the pros and cons for individual industries will only end in bickering and allow the government to take advantage of its information monopoly to praise the agreement. If talking about pros and cons is what is intended, this could only take place after an implementation of two or three years. As it is now, the only winner is the government, which has the power to set the agenda.
The June 2010 debate about the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and then-Democratic Progressive Party chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) ended in this kind of bickering and failed to clarify the pros and cons of the agreement. In the end, the government could implement the agreement with the claim that the issue had been thoroughly debated and discussed, in effect turning its opponents into silent endorsers.
This is why the service trade agreement debate, if it is focused on explaining the impact on individual industries, will become yet another endorsement of government policy.
The real problem with the agreement are the political aims behind it. Trade in services is not a straightforward economic issue, it is a national security issue that involves Beijing’s economic warfare aimed at unification with Taiwan. This is the main point that should be clarified to the Taiwanese public during the debate. Some of the questions that should be posed are: Why is the government in such a hurry to sign a service trade agreement with China, instead of first forging free-trade agreements (FTAs) with friendly states? Why does the government place trade in services — which involves small businesses at the grassroots level — before commodity negotiations, when the general approach is to begin with commodity talks?
Other questions to be asked are why does the government not link the service trade agreement to an FTA with the US or Japan — or, for that matter, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or any of the other ASEAN countries — in order to gain an advantage. All these issues are political questions that should be brought to the public’s attention during the debate, thoroughly and without exception.
Furthermore, the possible impact of the agreement on individual salaries, personal information security and the overall economy must not be overlooked when setting the agenda for the debate.
To sum up, whether the debate will be effective, open and fair will depend on the topics and questions. If the organizer focuses the debate on the impact on individual industries while avoiding the political issues mentioned here, it will be open to criticism and ridicule for concealing truths, and it will be responsible for treating both country and people unfairly.
Huang Tien-lin is a former presidential adviser.
Translated by Perry Svensson