After signing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) on Tuesday, Taiwan and China face the challenge of persuading Taiwan’s 23 million people that Beijing has no ulterior political motives, analysts said.
“It’s very difficult for the public not to harbor political concerns over [the] ECFA,” said Tung Chen-yuan (童振源), a professor at the Graduate Institute of Development Studies at National Chengchi University. “Who would be naive enough to believe that Beijing has no political motivation behind the move? What would make it sign an agreement benefiting Taipei at [a] time when Taiwan already enjoys a huge trade surplus each year?”
Taiwan’s trade surplus with China, according to Taiwan’s statistics, was US$37.6 billion last year, and the ECFA is not likely to narrow it.
The agreement will lead to lower tariffs for more than 500 categories of Taiwanese products sold in China, but for only half as many Chinese-made goods sold in Taiwan.
Even a Chinese negotiator has called the deal skewed in Taiwan’s favor, while many in Taiwan view the agreement as a bid to lock it into China’s political orbit.
The Democratic Progressive Party said on Tuesday that the ECFA would relegate Taiwan to the status of a local government such as semi-autonomous Hong Kong and Macau in any talks with Beijing.
Those anxieties were reflected in Taiwanese newspaper commentary yesterday.
“China is most happy from the signing as its goal of annexing Taiwan is moving smoothly ahead,” the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) said.
The Chinese-language Apple Daily said: “[The] ECFA is a vitamin for Taiwan, but we can’t take vitamins instead of regular meals. Taiwan has to rely on its own efforts to compete.”
The Chinese-language Economic Daily News, however, said the trade pact was a “critical first step for Taiwan’s participation in regional economic integration,” as the rest of Asia draws ever closer to China.
China often buys political gains with economic concessions, but may have misunderstood the mood in Taiwan, said Zhang Baohui (張寶輝), an expert on China-Taiwan ties at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
“They underestimate the identity issue. In the past 10 years, the people on the island have shifted towards a Taiwan identity. Fewer and fewer think of themselves as Chinese. No economic benefit will reverse that trend,” he said.
Voters in Taiwan’s small, vibrant democracy could voice their anger over pressure from Beijing in presidential elections in 2012, analysts said.
China should therefore mute talk about political ties, said Liou To-hai (劉德海), a political scientist at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.
“What China should avoid doing is pressing Taiwan to talk about political or security matters for two or three years or at least not before Taiwan’s next presidential election,” he said.
For Taiwan’s government under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the ECFA is a potential victory, but only if the promised gains — including hundreds of thousands of new jobs — materialize, analysts said.
The Ma administration could also ease fears by encouraging more open dialogue on the pact, a debate hampered so far by the absence of concrete details.
“Since so many people are still worried about the ECFA, and no consensus has been reached on it, a referendum would be the socially least expensive way to arrive at a consensus from within,” Tung said.
However, no matter what Beijing and Taipei may say, China is so huge and so close that it is hard for Taiwan not to feel intimidated.
“Because of the overwhelming difference in size, there is a concern that integration of the economies could make them lose economic autonomy and in the long run also political autonomy,” Zhang said.
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