Ma urges PRC not to block FTAs

SLAP IN THE FACE?:A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that Beijing would not allow Taiwan to sign trade deals with other countries, even after an ECFA is signed

By Mo Yan-chih, Vincent Y. Chao and Flora Wang  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Thu, Jun 03, 2010 - Page 1

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday urged China not to block Taiwan from signing free-trade agreements (FTA) and other pacts with other countries.

The remarks came a day after a Chinese foreign ministry official said Beijing “firmly objects” to Taiwan signing official agreements with China’s diplomatic allies.

The statement was seen a major embarrassment for Ma, who has repeatedly said that his administration’s plan to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China would give Taiwan a better chance of ­reaching similar deals with other major trading partners, including the US and Japan.

Ma yesterday defended Taiwan’s right to sign FTAs as a member of the WTO and said his administration would intensify efforts to seek closer economic ties with other countries.

“It is our right as a WTO member to sign FTAs with other countries and we should not see interference when we exercise our right,” Ma, in his capacity as Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman, said at the party’s Central Standing Committee meeting.

Ma also defended the legitimacy of agreements the country signed with other countries and said economic, cultural and ­technical agreements signed with non-allies were all effective.

“The Republic of China is a sovereign country and has signed many agreements with many countries. The agreements are official as they are signed by the government,” he said.

At a separate setting yesterday, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said the government would move toward signing FTAs with other countries regardless of what China says.

“Under the directive of President Ma Ying-jeou, the government will do its very best to ensure the welfare and benefits of Taiwanese through globalization, by first making Taiwan a strong economic power and reaching out to other Asian countries,” Wu said. “Trade and commerce are the lifeline of Taiwan and this country, as a WTO member, is eligible to sign trade deals, pacts or agreements of any kind with other countries to strengthen its trade development and ameliorate the welfare and benefits of its people, regardless of any outside influence.”

KMT Legislator Lai Shyh-bao (賴士葆) of the legislature’s Finance Committee said Taiwan could still sign FTA-like agreements with other countries, while KMT Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元), another committee member, said Taiwan should seek to enter into FTAs with other countries as an economic entity while putting the sovereignty issue aside.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators, meanwhile, said yesterday that the statement from Beijing came as a “slap in the face” for Ma, who has been arguing that “the pressure and obstruction to our efforts to sign FTAs with other countries will be reduced” if a trade agreement with China is signed.

“China’s comments are further proof that President Ma has been lying to the public,” DPP spokesperson Lin Yu-chang (林右昌) said. “Taiwan should not rely on China as a window to the world.”

The DPP has instead called for cross-strait economic negotiations to be conducted under the WTO framework and said negotiations should be done on a country-to-country basis.

The comments from the Chinese foreign ministry were likely to provide additional ammunition to opposition parties, which claim that an ECFA should first be subject to a public referendum before becoming valid.

The Executive Yuan’s Referendum Review Committee is expected to deliver a verdict today on a referendum question initiated by the Taiwan Solidarity Union and supported by the DPP asking voters whether they support the proposed ECFA.

The incident could also boost popular support for the opposition in the year-end elections, said Hsu Yung-ming (徐永明), a political scientist at Soochow University.

“Ma faces pressure from the opposition and from citizens, so the opposition’s voice will get louder,” Hsu said.

“The question is whether this will become an election issue,” he said, referring to the Nov. 27 special municipality elections, which many consider a barometer for the 2012 presidential election.

At a separate setting, European Commission Directorate General of Trade Director Mauro Petriccione said in Taipei: “Our member states will not give the commission permission to negotiate [trade deals with Taiwan] unless they have some reasonable assurance that this will not damage our economic interests in China.”

He said China remains the “answer” to whether the EU and Taiwan would be able to sign trade-enhancement measures (TEM). He did not elaborate.

While addressing the European Chamber of Commerce during a luncheon in Taipei later in the day, Petriccione said signing a Taiwan-EU TEM could “take a little while.”

“I am not saying that one should be pessimistic about FTAs between Taiwan and [the] EU, but at the moment it is very unclear,” he said, adding that the EU would continue to negotiate the matter with Taiwan “whenever it is possible and appropriate.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Alan Romberg, distinguished fellow and director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, told Central News Agency that despite Beijing’s opposition to any form of “official” engagement between Taiwan and other countries, it would remain possible for Taiwan to sign free-trade deals that were not “government-to-government” agreements.

“One presumes that other countries would realize that a ‘government to government’ agreement would not pass muster with the People’s Republic of China, so they would plan to fashion any agreement to avoid that problem,” said Romberg, a former spokesman for the US Department of State.

Romberg said Chinese Ministry of Foriegn Affairs spokesman Ma Zhaoxu’s (馬朝旭) statement did not make it clear whether Beijing would oppose an agreement that “substantively is the equivalent of an FTA but does not take the form of a ‘government to government’ agreement.”

If China were to disappoint Taiwan’s expectations by opposing such “FTA-like” agreements altogether, it would destroy much of the goodwill that has been built between the two sides over the past two years, Romberg said.

As an ECFA has yet to be signed, he said, it is premature to try to pin down Beijing’s position regarding a future situation.

“But it is hard to believe that Beijing would not understand the importance of this issue and would not be cooperative, as long as any such agreements take into account the need to finesse the issue of ‘one China, one Taiwan’ or ‘two Chinas,’” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AGENCIES

Also See: EDITORIAL : Nightmare scenario under ECFA