President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration and its counterparts in Beijing accomplished the nearly impossible this year by signing a complex trade agreement between two entities that are technically at war — and one of which does not recognize the other’s existence — in a matter of months.
While free-trade and free-trade-like agreements signed between two states on an equal footing (at least in terms of two-way recognition) usually require years of negotiations, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China on June 29 took a little more than five months.
Now, either officials from the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, the two semi-official bodies that were charged with negotiating the trade pact, were incredibly talented and managed to resolve the immense hurdles that have haunted any type of relation between the two entities, or the two sides were too impatient and couldn’t wait to sign the agreement, which offered “proof” that Ma’s cross-strait policies were bearing fruit.
I leave it to the reader to decide which is likeliest, though I would strongly urge that we bear in mind William of Ockham’s sagacious case for parsimony when seeking to explain the cause of a phenomenon amid a plurality of hypotheses.
However, what is more immediately apparent is that the individuals behind this hasty achievement have been far less efficient in submitting the ECFA documents to the WTO, which two entities signing trade pacts are expected to do — and which Ma promised would be done. The ECFA came into effect on Sept. 12, while the “early harvest” list of items that will receive preferential tariff treatment is set to come into force on Jan. 1. In other words, more time has elapsed since the ECFA was signed than it took to negotiate the pact and still the WTO has not been notified.
Ironically, it was the US government — the very same government with which Ma had said he would “mend” relations after eight years of supposedly strained relations — that complained recently about the apparent foot-dragging on the matter. Those worries, passed on to the nation’s envoy to the US, Jason Yuan (袁健生), also come on the heels of comments by Bonnie Glaser, a long-time commentator on cross-strait affairs, that US officials felt the Ma administration was not being entirely forthcoming in keeping Washington informed of Taipei’s engagement with Beijing. US officials, many of whom have gone out of their way to praise Ma’s policies (including the ECFA) over the past two-and-a-half years, are feeling left out and appear to be getting annoyed by the smoke that’s being blown in their faces.
The ECFA, an important development though it may be in its own right, could also be the tip of the iceberg. The more the Ma administration keeps its dealings with Beijing away from public scrutiny and the more it dodges transparency with global institutions, the greater the level of mistrust will become, not only among US officials and WTO units eager to ensure the ECFA meets the spirit of global trade, but more importantly Taiwanese, whose future is in the hands of seemingly unaccountable parties.
Taipei and Beijing still have a little more than two weeks to make good on their promise to notify the global trade body on the content of the ECFA. Surely, in light of the tremendous talent that ostensibly made negotiations successful in record-breaking time, things cannot have become bogged down over the simple task of translating the document into English?
Washington wants answers, and so do we.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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