The nation is at an important junction on the road toward its future: Can it retain its freedom, democracy and de facto independence? Or will it be slowly but surely absorbed by an aggressive and repressive China?
One important indicator is how the country deals with the cross-strait service agreement, signed in June last year by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. During the past few days we have seen strong pressure from the government on the Legislative Yuan to pass the agreement.
Ma and others supporting the agreement argue that approval by the legislature is necessary for economic growth and integration into the regional economy. In recent remarks Ma said the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010 had been “a great boost to Taiwan.” He also said that trade with New Zealand has increased 73 percent since a bilateral economic cooperation agreement was signed with the country last year.
However, these rosy presentations by the Ma government are deceptive and amount to a number of half-truths and even outright lies. Let us take the issues one by one: First, the underlying political agenda. It is no secret that the leaders in Beijing want to push for unification. In their long-term vision, there is no room for a free and democratic Taiwan. Trade agreements such as the ECFA, the cross-strait service trade agreement and the proposed trade in goods agreement are viewed as a means to pull the nation closer into their unwelcome economic and political embrace.
Should Taiwan restructure its economy and work toward integration into the regional economy? Certainly, but that is not achieved by linking the economy closer to China’s. Indeed the opposite is the case: Overreliance on China would be detrimental. The economy will be strengthened only if it is linked more closely to other nations in the region, such as Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. The economy would also benefit from closer ties to the “free” economies of the US and Europe.
Would the proposed trade pact be beneficial to the economy, and is it a pact between equal partners? The main problem is that the opening up of Taiwanese sectors of industry (such as printing, car rental, cargo transportation, beauty salons, restaurants and book publishing) is unconditional, but this is not reflected on the Chinese side. The agreement is restricted to China’s Fujian Province and is also conditional. Certainly not a deal between equals: It looks more like China is treating Taiwan as an extension of Fujian Province.
Would the proposed pact help preparations for entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Ma is saying that he is worried that the delay in legislative approval of the cross-strait service agreement is damaging the credibility of the nation in the eyes of the international community. Actually, the opposite is the case: Other countries are increasingly worried that due to overreliance on China, the country will not be able to act with sufficient independence. It will be considered China’s appendix.
In addition to the abovementioned issues, there is a very basic question: where is the Chinese economy going? During the past two decades there has been strong growth, but there are increasing signs that a significant downturn is coming. The prominent international financier George Soros wrote recently that the growth model responsible for China’s rapid rise has run out of steam. A major downturn in China would suck Taiwan down with it.
Against this background it is wise if the nation distances itself from China, and does not go through with the cross-strait service agreement. It is a Trojan Horse that would destroy freedom and democracy from within.
Mei-chin Chen is a commentator based in Washington.