Pushing through a landmark trade deal with a country that wants to annex you—surely only a wildly popular leader would feel he had a mandate for this?
If you’re Taiwanese President Ma Ying- jeou, then the answer’s apparently no. Ma rode a wave of frustration with his unpopular predecessor Chen Shui-bian and romped to victory in March 2008 promising to reinvigorate the Taiwanese economy. Yet his approval rating has tumbled from highs of 79 percent in the days following his election to a lowly 28 percent in a Global Views poll taken earlier this month. The ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) has also been on the back foot in local elections, losing out to the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party in a string of legislative by-elections and local polls this year.
To be fair, Ma has actually had some success in persuading the public of the merits of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is being signed today in the Chinese city of Chongqing. The idea was first floated about 18 months ago, to little excitement. Since then, however, polls have found public support for the pact exceeding opposition, while a rally against the deal in Taipei over the weekend fell well short of attracting the 50,000 to 100,000 it had hoped for (though police still estimated a turnout of about 32,000 in heavy rain).
Ma claims that the pact is essential for Taiwan’s future growth prospects, and pledges to lead the island into a ‘golden decade,’ noting that the number of free trade agreements signed that involve Asian nations has jumped from three in 2000 to almost 60 in 2009.
And it seems it’s not just the KMT that sees the economic benefits of the deal. Analysts from the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics have estimated that the pact could boost Taiwan’s GDP by as much as 5.3 percent by 2020, with the authors arguing in a policy brief released this month that: ‘We can think of few (if any) other policy reforms available to Taipei that could deliver such gains.’
The KMT already has some form delivering on the economy—this week consumer confidence hit a 6-year high, while the jobless rate last month fell to its lowest level in 17 months as export orders in the same month surged by 34 percent.
But support for the deal hasn’t been universal among analysts, including National Taiwan University Prof. Kenneth Lin, who argues that China has deliberately left the ECFA as the only trade avenue for Taiwan.