President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was evasive yesterday when asked if a planned economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with Beijing would lead to a “one China market,” but said the pact would eventually establish “something similar to a free-trade area.”
The two sides of the Taiwan Strait would form such an area in the spirit of the WTO, which both countries belong to, Ma said in an interview with the Taipei Times.
“A free-trade agreement [FTA] or any similar trade agreement have many forms,” he said.
“Some are called FTAs and some are called economic partnership arrangements, but they are all regional free-trade agreements under the WTO,” he said.
Ma said the reason that his administration wants the pact with Beijing is because China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner and that once an ECFA is signed, the obstruction to Taiwan’s effort to sign FTAs with ASEAN countries would be reduced.
“We have encountered numerous obstacles over the past years [in signing FTAs]” Ma said. “China is one of the major factors.”
Major export partners, such as Japan and South Korea, totally ignored Taiwan’s push for FTAs with them because of China’s intimidation, he said.
Taiwan also has to aggressively participate in regional economic integration to avoid being “isolated economically,” he said.
“Signing the ECFA is just the beginning,” he said, expressing the hope that closer trade ties with China would help Taiwan clear some hurdles in negotiations on trade pacts with other countries.
There is no guarantee, however, that it will open opportunities for more FTA talks, he said.
Ma said he realized it was not Beijing’s policy to help Taiwan ink FTAs with other countries, but he said if Taiwan continues to be isolated internationally, it would be hard to boost cross-strait relations.
Ma has promised not to allow the import of more agricultural products and workers from China, and yesterday he denied the government would be coerced into fully opening the markets in 10 years. Any country facing such a difficulty could explain the problem to the WTO, he said.
Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1994 states that the “reasonable length of time” for opening markets should exceed 10 years only in exceptional cases.
In cases where members believe that 10 years would be insufficient, they have to provide a full explanation to the Council for Trade in Goods on the need for a longer period.
The WTO does not require any member to open its labor market, he said.
“The labor issue is not included in the regulations of the WTO. Not a single WTO member is forced to import laborers,” Ma said.
There has been widespread concern among the public and economists that an ECFA with China could exacerbate Taiwan’s already vulnerable labor market and agriculture sector.
At a separate setting yesterday, Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) said the first round of official ECFA negotiations would be held at the end of this month as scheduled.
Huang Chih-peng (黃志鵬), head of the Bureau of Foreign Trade, and Tang Wei (唐煒), director of the Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Department under China’s Ministry of Commerce, will chair the negotiations, Shih said.
The agenda of the first round will not touch on substantive issues such as the proposed “early harvest list” of industries that would be first to benefit from an ECFA and only general suggestions regarding the procedure will be discussed, Shih said.