A backward approach to an ECFA has merit

By Paul Lin 林保華

Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009, Page 8

There are still many public disagreements about the government’s plan to sign an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China, while many know little about what such an agreement would entail. Despite this, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) sees it as a panacea, saying that not only is an ECFA necessary, but also that the sooner it is signed the better.

Bureau of Foreign Trade Director-General Huang Chih-peng (黃志鵬), who went to Beijing for a fourth round of informal trade talks with China last week, said there probably would not be a fifth round of informal talks. Does that mean the government is ready to sign an economic pact with China?

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), although fully occupied with preparations for the year-end elections, should not ignore this issue. An ECFA with China could be signed during the visit of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) next month. That would be a bitter pill for Taiwanese to swallow.

The People’s Sovereignty Movement has touched some Taiwanese, but that will not change Ma’s decision to sign an economic pact with China. Nor will Ma endorse a proposal on an ECFA referendum as he represents the interests of “superior Mainlanders,” certain corporations and even the Chinese Communist Party. If Ma continues to act willfully, Taiwan may soon see violent confrontation.

To avoid this result, I propose that the government sign an ECFA with China “backwards.” By that I mean that the government should first sign concrete agreements before moving onto signing the framework agreement. Doing so would first give the public an understanding of the concrete contents of the agreement and its pros and cons before deciding whether or not they can accept the framework agreement.

Here are my reasons for making this proposal.

First, the Hong Kong government signed a closer economic partnership arrangement (CEPA) with Beijing in 2003 and since then, has signed supplementary agreements every year.

Second, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on financial supervision, which Taiwan recently signed with China, is included in the ECFA “early harvest” list. In other words, the MOU was signed before the ECFA. Because an MOU can be signed in advance, what would be the harm in signing other agreements beforehand? For instance, the tariff issue that Taiwanese businesspeople care the most about could also be solved as an “early harvest” item. In so doing, the government would know which industries will benefit from or be harmed by tariff-free treatment.

Third, the Ma administration said that an ECFA with China would help Taiwan sign free-trade agreements (FTA) with ASEAN countries. Neither China nor other countries are willing to take the initiative in proving this. If Taiwan could first sign concrete agreements with China, it would serve as a test of whether other countries will sign FTAs, or similar agreements, with Taiwan without opposition from China.

Fourth, Taiwan has long been isolated in the international community, so it does not have many experienced negotiators. Even negotiations with the US on a protocol for US beef imports were a huge mess, not to mention talks with a country that has long tried to annex Taiwan.

Since signing a CEPA with Beijing, the economic development of Hong Kong has been dependent on China, causing it to lose its past vitality.

Thus, Taiwan should sign agreements with concrete contents with China to gain more experience before signing an ECFA. After all, how could we have a framework without concrete contents?

Paul Lin is a political commentator.

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