[Viewpoint] From dire straits to sea of prosperityCan China and Taiwan become one? What is the endgame for the win-win strategy the two countries are pursuing? These questions came into my mind as I watched China and Taiwan signing the historic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).
The agreement is more than just a measure to expand economic cooperation. It will surely be a landmark event in the development of cross-strait relations in the future. What turned the Taiwan Strait from a battle line of confrontation and discord into a waterway of reconciliation and cooperation? In the past, Taiwan and China were hostile to each other politically, militarily and ideologically, as much as South and North Korea. What made them change so suddenly, and why are they rushing to become one economically?
China is obviously taking long, slow steps toward its long-held ambition of resolving the Taiwan problem. As China grew into the second most powerful nation on Earth after three decades of reform and opening, Beijing has gained confidence, and based on its new global status, China is gradually incorporating Taiwan into its economic bloc. It ambitiously hopes to begin the era of “Chiwan,” or “China + Taiwan,” by creating a gigantic market with a population of 1.4 billion people and a gross domestic product of $5.3 trillion.
For this grand cause, China has made considerable concessions. For instance, Beijing prohibited Chinese workers from being employed in Taiwan, which had been a concern for Taipei. Also, Beijing excluded Chinese agricultural products from the tariff exemption list.
Having made these concessions in advance, China is preparing a foundation for eventual unification, using economic integration as a springboard. It is a well-known fact that political and military tension has been gradually easing in the Taiwan Strait as mutual economic dependency has grown. President Hu Jintao has taken the position that the Taiwan issue has to be dealt with as a “sacred” challenge to national and ethnic unification, so he has to prioritize long-term and general interests over immediate ones. Moreover, the signing of the ECFA is especially valuable and meaningful progress, considering the constant moves taken by former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to separate from China and declare independence.
However, the economic agreement was made possible more because of a policy change on Taiwan’s side. Taiwan deviated from its original defensive posture and came to the negotiating table with China willingly. The most critical factor was the emergence of Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, which is friendlier toward mainland China. During the presidential election in March 2008, Ma of the Kuomintang claimed that the only way for the Taiwanese economy to escape from its prolonged slump was to expand economic cooperation with the mainland. As a more specific solution, he proposed the establishment of the “One China Market.”
Secondly, the Taiwanese government was empowered to participate in the negotiations more actively, as many Taiwanese citizens supported Ma’s initiative. People had grown tired of the Democratic Progressive Party’s pursuit of independence during the eight years of the Chen Shuibian administration, as the policy did not bring any actual benefits. The foremost concern of Taiwan is not the argument over unification or independence. The point is who can revive the Taiwanese economy and how. As a presidential candidate, Ma had benchmarked President Lee Myung-bak. President Lee had advocated the 7-4-7 policy during his election campaign, to achieve economic growth of 7 percent, reach per-capita national income of $40,000 dollars and enter the top seven economic powers. Ma proposed the 6-3-3 policy, to attain 6 percent economic growth and national income of $30,000 while keeping the unemployment rate at 3 percent. The ECFA is the outcome of the Taiwanese people’s support for Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland- friendly economic policies.
The agreement was made possible after both Beijing and Taipei made precise and strategic calculations of gains and losses. Of course, the ECFA does not mean that China and Taiwan have secured a cure for decades of cross-strait discord. In Taiwan, the obstacle
of legislative ratification awaits. The Democratic Progressive Party is likely to oppose the agreement, claiming that it would be hard to maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty if the Taiwanese economy gets absorbed into the Chinese economy.
At any rate, it is apparent that the agreement would greatly contribute to inter-strait reconciliation and cooperation. The Chinese regard “food as heaven,” and now that they are cooperating over “food,” they will not suffer from division anymore. The Taiwan Strait is no longer a sea of discord with waves of hostile ideological rhetoric crashing on its shores. It is evolving into a sea of peace and prosperity to benefit both sides.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies at Hanyang University.
By Moon Heung-ho