ECFA must guarantee free-trade agreements

Taipei Times, Taiwan

ECFA must guarantee free-trade agreements

By Li Ching-lieh

12 August 2010

Two Chinese vice ministers of commerce, Gao Hucheng (高虎城) and Jiang Zengwei (姜增偉), have commented on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that was signed by Taiwan and China at the end of June.

The agreement was an arrangement made “under the precondition of ‘one China’ and the ‘1992 consensus,’” Gao said.

Regarding the question of Taiwan signing free-trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries, Jiang said: “As long as it doesn’t contravene the ‘1992 consensus,’ we can make reasonable arrangements through cross-strait negotiations.”

These comments signal that, having signed the ECFA, Taiwan has lost the right to make its own decisions about signing FTAs.

There is nothing surprising about the two ministers’ remarks, since they represent China’s longstanding attitude. The problem is, China’s viewpoint has now been put into practice by the ECFA because the current version of the pact contains no provision stating that it will not affect the two signatories’ right to sign FTAs. It is not hard to imagine the difficulties Taiwan will face as a result of the pact, with both Taipei and Beijing quoting the agreement as proof when lobbying various countries as to whether they can sign separate FTAs with Taiwan.

For this reason, I suggest that an article confirming the right to sign FTAs should be added to the ECFA. The article should be clearly worded to say that the agreement does not in any way affect the rights of the two signatories to hold talks or negotiate and sign FTAs with other WTO members.

An article worded in this way would not call on China to state that it agrees to or recognizes Taiwan’s right to sign FTAs because Taiwan had this inherent right that no one can interfere with. It would not even demand that China promise not to interfere or lay down obstacles when Taiwan exercises this right.

That is, China can carry on as it did before — there is no demand that it should change its ways. Taiwan only needs to insist that the text of the agreement should say the two signatories’ existing rights in this respect will not be affected. There is no need to add to or subtract from this right or for China to make any concessions. One would have thought government-appointed negotiators could at least have done this much.

The ECFA, as it stands, clearly fails to uphold Taiwan’s right to make its own decisions with regard to signing FTAs. Under the current version, when Taiwan wants to sign such agreements in future, it will probably have to just accept arrangements based on the precondition of “one China,” when other countries demand it.

It is obvious that the ECFA, as it stands, and FTAs based on it, touch on the issue of Taiwan’s independent decision-making and sovereignty. The ECFA is not just a matter of people’s livelihood and economics, as the government claims. That being the case, I ask: Can the ECFA, as it stands, be allowed to pass without being subject to public approval through a referendum?

Li Ching-lieh is a professor of electrical engineering at Tamkang University.

Translated by Julian Clegg