Op-Ed Contributors

The politics of a non-political agreement

By Shih Chih-yu
Updated: 2010-06-30 07:53
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The signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with the Chinese mainland has led to two debates in Taiwan - whether or not the enhanced economic integration with the mainland will hurt Taiwan's interest, and whether or not it will facilitate subsequent political integration. Both debates are spurious to the extent that they mainly reflect the pro-independence propensity hidden in their upsurge. But none of these debates can shape either the direct answers to these questions or the influence of pro-independence stance in the future because the ECFA is bound to generate contradictory implications.

The first debate is a familiar one between competition and protection elsewhere too. The argument against the ECFA holds that a more open market will lead to the dumping of goods from the mainland, which are of lower quality but inexpensive. The ruling Kuomintang counters that only an open market can effectively enhance the competitive edge of the goods made in Taiwan in the long run and the mainland market provides the scale of economy for Taiwan producers to achieve just that.

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But the real debate is not about protectionism.

The opposition's sheer purpose is to use the dumping argument to consolidate the image of threat from the other side of the Straits. The authorities are well aware of that. That's why the Kuomintang has decided, with Beijing's tacit consent, to restrict as many goods as possible in which mainland producers have the competitive advantage. For example, the cheaper mainland labor is not allowed in Taiwan, mainland agricultural products are excluded from the list of tariff-exempted goods, and the other sectors that the mainland enjoys a competitive advantage are disqualified for compromise.

More importantly, the white-collar professionals whom analysts in Taiwan traditionally consider less prepared for internationalization are specifically banned.

When all these restrictions apply, the Kuomintang's alleged rationale of using the ECFA to enhance Taiwan's competitive capacity is immediately nullified. In other words, the Kuomintang does not really think about competitiveness. Its major concern is how to avoid the impression that Taipei is making concessions to, or rapprochement with, Beijing. Implicitly in its protectionist adjustment is the awareness that the opposition argues what it argues only to harass the Kuomintang by painting it to be a "capitulationist" party.

The second debate on the potential of political integration engineered by the mainland seems real not only to the pro-independence forces in Taiwan, but a good number of international observers. The opposition specifically charges that the ECFA is actually the Kuomintang's political agenda. In fact, the opposition urges a referendum to approve the ECFA, hoping the referendum could politicize the ECFA into a choice between independence and unification. The fact that the vote would be cast only by Taiwan voters should be enough to demonstrate the island's "independence" despite the result of the vote.

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