The honeymoon with China is over By Emerson Chang (張子揚)

Wednesday, Dec 30, 2009, Page 8

Following the failure of talks on a cross-strait tax agreement, the timing of the signing of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China has also become uncertain.

These two developments are very different from the tone that China has used to deal with the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) over the past 18 months. Does this mean China is changing its policy that Taiwan must agree to all its requests? My view is that the Ma administration’s repeated emphasis of its policy of placing economic issues ahead of political issues has blocked China’s agenda on cross-strait political issues.

China’s response has been to deal with each issue on its own merits instead of demanding that Taiwan grant its every request. The aim is to make the Ma government understand that economic negotiations are far less advantageous than comprehensive negotiations based on politico-economic considerations.

Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Vice Chairman Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中) has said technical problems led to the failure of the cross-strait tax agreement and the possible delay in signing an ECFA, and that this had nothing to do with the sovereignty issue. He said tax agreements are “practically and technically very difficult,” and that “they did not include political aspects.” Zheng also said that the ECFA proposal did not touch upon politically sensitive issues, but was purely an economic issue.

These statements seem to imply that Zheng respects and goes along with the Ma government’s policy of placing economic interests ahead of political issues, but in the end the Ma government will taste the bitter consequences of Ma’s broken election promises as he comes under pressure from China-based Taiwanese businesspeople, the pan-green camp and the media. This result is a reflection of how China has started to deal pragmatically with the Ma government by repositioning itself through apparent strategic retreat and using Ma’s position to its own advantage.

What has the Ma administration done to annoy China? The development of cross-strait relations over the past two months don’t seem to provide any clues, because in October, at the Shaanxi Cross-Strait Trade and Science Cooperation General Assembly, Taiwan Affairs Office Director Wang Yi (王毅) said experts on both sides had completed most of their joint studies into an ECFA, and that a date would be set to release the findings based on thorough cross-strait consultations.

Besides, before ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) departure to Taiwan, Wang said at the Beijing airport: “I hope the fourth round of talks will become an opportunity for formal ECFA talks.”

Unexpectedly, just after Chen arrived in Taiwan, Straits Exchange Foundation Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) included the government’s “mutual non-denial” slogan in his welcoming message. In addition, the Mainland Affairs Council’s missile withdrawal advertisement impaired China’s efforts to win over Taiwanese hearts and minds. This makes it seem as if there are differing opinions within the Ma government about its avowed policy of placing economic issues ahead of political issues, and repeatedly dealing China heavy blows using political issues suggests a double standard.

Following the recent local elections, the government has been paying more attention to public opinion and the pan-green camp, which has resulted in joint blue-green calls for an ECFA being pursued simultaneously with other free-trade agreements. This places China in a dilemma and creates the risk of escalating cross-strait problems.

This process highlights how China’s Taiwan strategy has temporarily retreated from one of actively pushing for economic integration to bring about political integration into a strategy of attempting to regain the power to set the agenda and time frame. Catering to public opinion in Taiwan, where people are worried about loss of autonomy and control, Zheng has said that “talks about signing an ECFA are not based on the unilateral wishful thinking of either side.” This is a softer statement to clarify that China no longer demands that Taiwan grant every Chinese wish.

Zheng’s words echo Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) statement when he met Chiang in June last year that consultation on an equal footing meant that both parties should treat each other as equals, and without imposing their will on the other party.

This implies that the 18-month cross-strait honeymoon has ended. At future talks, if either side hopes for preferential treatment, it will have to rely on economic strength or political wisdom.

Emerson Chang is director of the Department of International Studies at Nan Hua University.

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