US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers told a Washington conference that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is in a hurry to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China in case his party does poorly in year-end regional elections.
Hammond-Chambers said a poor result in the elections would “undermine” Ma’s credibility and cost him significant support for his policies.
“Ma’s stature and his ability to be proactive in his engagement with China, especially on ECFA, is very much tied-in with his significant mandate from March of last year,” Hammond-Chambers said at the American Enterprise Institute conference titled “Free Trade Agreements in Asia: Implications for Taiwan and the United States.”
If the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) does poorly in the elections, there will be a perception that “the people have pushed back on some of the things he has done,” Hammond-Chambers said.
Even if that were related more to Ma’s performance during the Typhoon Morakot disaster than to an ECFA, a political loss would slow the president’s ability “to do the big things that he wants to do,” Hammond-Chambers said.
“[This] is why he is in a hurry to get ECFA done, to get the framework agreement signed,” he said.
“Ma would like to see it done before early December when these local elections are launched, and try to set it in stone before the unpredictable outcome of the elections,” he said.
“We spend a lot of time here in the US dwelling on the political-military issues of Taiwan-China relations, but the people of Taiwan are mostly interested in their own economic welfare and how that is being represented by their elected leadership,” he said.
Hammond-Chambers said that Taiwan’s isolation was not sustainable in a rapidly integrating region. As the US was not prepared to sign a Free Trade Agreement, China and Taiwan were talking “every single day” about an ECFA, he said.
“China has a single goal when looking towards Taiwan and that is to move the ball forward, however incrementally, towards unification,” he said. “But Taiwan continues to have some inter-agency issues over how to handle ECFA. What we are seeing is a somewhat ad hoc approach to dealing with the issues as the government works through and tries to understand how it is going to address negotiating the deal.”
Thus, while China wants to move as quickly as possible and to talk about “more sensitive matters,” Taipei’s democracy and Ma’s constitutional limitations have kept the brakes on, Hammond-Chambers said.
“China has a significant leadership change in 2012. This engagement policy with Ma and the Kuomintang [KMT] has taken place under the leadership of [Chinese President] Hu Jintao [胡錦濤], who will move on after 2012. And surely Hu will want to see some of the gains from this policy attached to his legacy as president,” he said.
The night before the conference, Hammond-Chambers said, he was playing a board game at home with his young daughter.
“It was one of those games that features a map of the world and the countries are color-coded and there was China and Taiwan and they were the same color,” he said.
“I looked at the box and it said ‘Made in China.’ I put my daughter to bed and went back downstairs and we have several board games with maps of the world, and all were made in China. And when I examined them, all showed Taiwan and China to be the same color,” he said.
“It’s just a little thing, but it demonstrates how relentless the Chinese are when it comes to Taiwan,” he said. “They are just relentless.”
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