Long before Sunday’s debate on the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) argued that Taiwan cannot afford to be left out of increasing regional economic integration. Ma has made it clear that free-trade agreements (FTA) are a positive trend and that an ECFA would serve as a bridge with the region as ASEAN Plus One (China) and ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) come into force.
The actual impact of FTAs with China on smaller regional economies, however, is only beginning to be understood. Still, early signs show that it might be wise to adopt a careful “go slow” approach.
A mere four months after ASEAN Plus One came into force, an FTA between six founding members of the organization and China, some sectors — such as textiles and garments, tires, steel and footwear — are already suffering in countries such as Indonesia, one of the signatories. Some garment factories in Jakarta have already gone under as a result of the flood of cheap Chinese clothing that have poured into the country. In some cases, the new competition drove down prices to such an extent that local companies were forced to sell jackets for less than they cost to make.
The chairman of Indonesia’s National Workers Union has said the trade deal could cost as many as 7 million jobs.
Representatives of the sectors that are at risk from the trade pact have called on Jakarta to renegotiate some aspects of the FTA or slow down the lowering of tariffs on certain products, calls the Indonesian government appears reluctant to act upon.
Still, if pressure from workers in Southeast Asian countries becomes strong enough as the negative effects of the asymmetrical FTA become more apparent, those governments may be compelled to turn to Beijing and ask for remedial measures. In the name of good relations and to protect its long-term trade interests, it is not impossible that Beijing would show some willingness to accommodate its smaller partners. The key reason is that all the members of ASEAN Plus One and ASEAN Plus Three are sovereign countries recognized by Beijing.
When it comes to Taiwan, however, an ECFA — which appears to be intended as a first step in the gradual implementation of a full-blown FTA — is not being negotiated between two sovereign states, since Beijing does not recognize Taiwan.
The long-term implications are worrying. Even if, as Ma has promised, short-term measures are implemented to mitigate the negative impact of an ECFA on vulnerable sectors of the economy and even if Beijing makes initial concessions on the “early harvest” list, China is far less likely to show flexibility over time. This is largely because it will look at that discontent and address it as a domestic problem rather than one between states. In other words, the mechanisms that normally apply to FTAs between sovereign states will not do so when it comes to Taiwan. Consequently, Beijing is expected to be far less amenable to renegotiation or goodwill once the pact has been signed, especially in light of cross-strait liberalization as a means to accelerate its unification strategy.
An ECFA will not solve every problem arising from regional economic liberalization and will undoubtedly create new ones. Although Ma prefers to address the matter as if it were purely a question of economics, the fact the two negotiating entities are engaged in an asymmetrical relationship economically and politically means that resolving those challenges will be all the more difficult.
Factory workers in ASEAN countries have difficult times ahead of them, but this could be far less onerous than the nightmare that Taiwanese workers in similar sectors could face five or 10 years from now.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has over the past few months continued to escalate its hegemonic rhetoric and increase its incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The US, in turn, has finally realized how its “strategic ambiguity” is increasingly wearing thin. Similarly, any hopes the US had that the PRC would be a responsible stakeholder and economic player have diminished, if not been abandoned. Taiwan, of course, remains as the same de facto independent, democratic nation that the PRC covets. As a result, the US needs to reconsider not only the amount, but also the type of arms
Taking advantage of my Taipei Times editors’ forbearance, I thought I would go with a change of pace by offering a few observations on an interesting nature topic, the many varieties of snakes in Taiwan. I will be drawing on my experiences living in Taiwan five times, from my teenage years in Kaohsiung back in the early sixties, to my last assignment as American Institute in Taiwan Director in 2006-9. Taiwan, with its semitropical climate, is a perfect setting for serpents. Indeed, one might say serpents are an integral part of the island’s ecosystem. Taiwan is warm, humid, with lots of
China constantly seeks out ways to complain about perceived slights and provocations as pretexts for its own aggressive behavior. It is both victimization paranoia and a form of information warfare that keeps the West on the defensive. True to form, China objected even to the innocuous reference to Taiwan at April 16’s summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Neither leader’s prepared remarks even mentioned Taiwan, out of deference to the Japanese side. Biden’s opening statement was modest: “Prime Minister Suga and I affirmed our ironclad support for US-Japanese alliance and for our shared security.
There is no ambiguity when it comes to war. Ambiguity begs for certainty and a lack thereof has historically led to war. History is full of examples: Europe’s and the US’ ambiguity as to how they would respond to Hitler’s growing territorial expansion in Europe was certainly a contributing factor to World War II. In the same vein, US ambiguity toward Japan’s expansionist militarism in the 1930s clearly led to the Pearl Harbor attacks that started the war in Asia in 1941. Ambiguity in a world with leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) will inevitably