The student-led Sunflower movement should be treated as “a wake-up call” not only for Taiwan, but also for the US and other countries as they ponder Taiwan’s future in the face of China’s expansionism.
William Stanton, Director of Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University and a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), described China’s positioning as a bid to return to its days as an “empire.”
Taiwan is a success story marked by its transitions from dictatorship to democracy and from poverty to prosperity, with US help in the form of aid and defense weapons, said Stanton.
“I think now, as much as ever, the US should be much more for ward-leaning in trying to ink its free-trade agreement [FTA] with Taiwan and be much more active and positive in encouraging Taiwan’s entry into the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership],” Stanton said in an interview with the Taipei Times on Friday.
During the interview, Stanton said that he did not represent anyone’s views except his own because he has retired from the US Foreign Service.
The underlying anxiety among young people as revealed in the Sunflower movement, which was prompted by the cross-strait service trade agreement, came from their “real-world concerns” about their economic future and showed “a widespread discontent with the direction things [cross-strait relations] are going,” he said.
Stanton, who can speak fluent Mandarin, said he understands why people are concerned about the trade deal because everywhere he goes, he talks to people about what it means for them: when he takes a taxi, eats at a cafeteria or gets his hair cut.
Stanton has acquired a good sense of the students’ thinking through the many students he meets and mentors at the university.
The changes brought about in Hong Kong after it underwent a process of economic integration with China — the attacks on journalists, media self-censorship, advertising money controlling the media, rising property prices, hospital staff and resource deficiencies, shortages in supplies such as baby milk powder — have been “discouraging,” Stanton said. “People look at the Hong Kong model, and they see there is dissatisfaction among Hong Kong people.”
There needs to be an objective economic analysis of the details of the agreement to tell people how it will affect their livelihoods for better or worse through debates and fact-checking processes, such as how the US is handling controversies surrounding Obamacare, Stanton said.
Saying that he is “a supporter of free trade” and has worked on the US-Australia FTA and the US-South Korea FTA, Stanton added that economic merit is not the only aspect that needs to be examined.
“There is no subject called economics. It is political economy. Everybody knows there is a political dimension to economic decisions. I don’t think it can be divorced,” Stanton said.
Taiwanese are also concerned about the political consequences the trade agreement will bring, and that also needs to be addressed by political leadership, Stanton said.
“I think there has to be a frank discussion about what it means for Taiwan politically,” he said.
The US has 20 FTAs and many of them were motivated by politics, including the ones signed with Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Australia and South Korea, he said.
“The thing you have to do is to have a wider picture and a broader perspective” to look at the cross-strait service trade agreement, Stanton said, alluding to the positive reviews about the agreement recently made by some US academics in Washington.