Ma’s Backdoor China Embrace
Image Credit: Office of the President of Taiwan

Ma’s Backdoor China Embrace


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.

Y.M. Wang
July 4, 2010 at 12:12

Whether Taiwan’s sovereignty was legally transferred to the Republic of China can be argued either way. In 1945, when Japan renounced its claim to Taiwan, there was no dispute in the international community that sovereignty of Taiwan should rightfully revert to the ROC. The debate on the legal status only began much later with the rise of the independence movement. On the other hand, it is correct that there is no document that formalized this transfer.

Whether the Greens on Taiwan likes it or not, Taiwan is culturally tied to China. One needs only to look at Taiwanese currency, the national anthem, or the Palace Museum. If there is truly unambiguous support for a completely separate Taiwanese identity, these symbols would have been done away with and ancient Chinese artifacts removed from the museum and sent back to China. The fact that pan-Blue candidates are routinely elected in certain regions also demonstrates this.

Also, the PRC’s governments grip on Chinese life is slowly but surely loosening. The media today can cover events that a decade ago would be unthinkable. The ROC was a one-party state, complete with the trappings of autocracy like censorship and spy agencies, until 1986. Democratization does happen, but looking at development indices like per capita GDP, the PRC today is no where close to the level of the ROC in 1986.

J. Michael
July 4, 2010 at 00:28

Magnus T.M.: Chen did speak out the name of the country he represented — Taiwan. The Republic of China (and its constitution) was imposed upon Taiwan in 1949 when the KMT lost the civil war and fled across the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan’s status was in limbo; it was under the control of the KMT, but it had not been handed over to the ROC by Japan or the international community. And prior to this, it was under half a century of Japanese rule. Chen actually had guts whereas Ma is afraid to speak out the name of the country that elected him, and he is resurrecting the overlapping ROC/china view that prevailed under the KMT prior to the 1990s.

Y.M. Wang: Perhaps true, but there’s no sign whatever that the People’s Republic of China is democratzing, or that the CCP would allow such a development. It is becoming increasingly obvious that all those theories about China democratizing after it adopted the Western free-market system are pure confabulation — it’s not going to happen anytime soon, and we should not underestimate the CCP’s ability to adapt and stay in power. Consequently, the *eventual* unification you speak of is (in a form that would be acceptable to Taiwanese) too far in the future.

P.L. Wong: Solid points. From my perspective here in Taipei, however, I’d say that Ma’s low popularity had more to do with mishandling of domestic issues (Typhoon Morakot, US beef, high unemployment) that his cross-strait, pro-China policies. It’s a mistake, IMHO, to look at Taiwanese politics as if the only thing that matters is cross-strait relations. It isn’t. Most (not all) politics are local.

J. McHugh
July 2, 2010 at 07:44

“Free” trade with a dictator is a contradiction in terms.

P. L. Wong
July 2, 2010 at 05:58

In response to Y. M. Wong,

First of all, poll after poll has shown that a majority of Taiwanese are not interested in political unification with China, democratic or otherwise. Next, why do you think Ma’s approval rates have gone down to under 30 percent? He got elected on promises of economic growth and “I love Taiwan” rhetoric. Even if a majority of the Taiwanese electorate are aware of Ma’s Sino-centric world view, that doesn’t necessarily mean they approve of eventual unification with China.

cna training
July 2, 2010 at 00:59

Found your site on today and really liked it…I bookmarked it and will be back to check it out some more later

Y.-M. Wang
June 30, 2010 at 17:44

For sure. Ma’s personal view, despite his public language, is heavily inclined toward eventual reunification, and the ECFA is one of the critical steps in the Mainland’s long campaign to render reunification inevitable. However, this is not news to Taiwan’s electorate; and they were certainly aware of Ma’s inclinations when they elected him. With the exception of the small (but highly vocal) extreme Green end of the Blue-Green spectrum, most Taiwanese are concerned about economic rather than political issues, and would not be particularly averse to *eventual* unification with a democratized Mainland.

Btw, ‘It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.’ is a quote that western sources frequently misattribute to Confucius. Contrary to common assumption, not every wise-sounding aphorism can be traced to him. As far as I can tell, this “quote” is a paraphrase of something said by Xunzi (ca. 4th c. BCE): 鍥而不舍,金石可鏤 or “If you carve with perseverance, even metal and stone can be engraved.”

Tan Tuang Joo
June 30, 2010 at 12:27

I think this deal spells a new era in China-Taiwan relations, not only economically, but also as a basis and foundation of cross-strait peace.

Bazza McKenzie
June 30, 2010 at 11:27

We are past the point where China can acquire Taiwan by force should it choose to do so. No one in China, Taiwan or elsewhere can seriously believe the US under Obama would lift a finger to help Taiwan.

So the outcome is now settled, the only question is how it is effected.

It is not in China’s interest to engage in a shooting war to achieve that outcome if it can be avoided. Aside from disrupting China’s trade, it would encourage neighbors to put more into defense. In particular, it would likely push Japan into nuclear arms, which that country could readily do, something China would hate to have happen.

So expect to see a continuing gently, gently approach, until Taiwan is offered something like the status of Hong Kong, with the threat of force and a subjugated status should Taiwan reject the overture.

The US ought to be thinking about the implications when so much of its electronics now comes from its greatest strategic competitor and from a country in the process of being slowly gobbled up by that competitor.

Magnus T.M.
June 30, 2010 at 10:27

Actually, he was elected as the President of the “Republic of China”.

His predecessor Chen was disgraceful in his inability to speak out the name of his country.

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