Will warmer ties burn Taiwan?

Critics fret loss of sovereignty as Taipei draws closer to China

by Mariko Kato

For many countries China is a key partner in international relations, whether in recovering from the financial crisis or tackling climate change. And this is no less true for Taiwan, whose government is sidelining long-term political disputes with the mainland for the sake of improving economic ties.

For some, the pragmatic pro-China policies of the new Nationalist government that came to power last year signal an overdue thawing of cross-strait relations, which could lead to greater international recognition. But others feel that the Nationalist-led administration is focusing on China at the expense of older friendships, for example with Japan.

Taiwan’s government, led by President Ma Ying-jeou, will be negotiating with Beijing early next year on signing an economic cooperation framework agreement, or ECFA, a free-trade pact. The government hopes it will pave the way for similar deals with other Asian countries with whom Taiwan does not trade freely, mainly because of opposition from China, according to Chao Chien-min, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council.

“Not only is China very important, we might be able to sign similar agreements with other countries like Japan and South Korea,” Chao told foreign reporters last month.

The Nationalists set up a rival government in Taiwan when they fled the mainland in 1949 after the civil war with the Communists. Beijing has since threatened military action if Taiwan tries to formally declare independence.

Cross-strait relations deteriorated when the Nationalists’ proindependence rival, the Democratic Progressive Party, held power between 2000 and 2008.

Recently, Taipei and Beijing signed three minor trade deals, the latest in a line of agreements since Ma took office.

But the proposal for the ECFA, a key policy in Ma’s administration, has been met by much criticism.

While the government insists the pact is crucial for maintaining Taiwan’s economic competitiveness in the global market, critics say little is known of its contents except that it will reduce restrictions on trade between the two sides. Some also fear it will jeopardize Taiwan’s sovereignty, while the government insists that any deal will be purely economic.

Chao dismissed critics’ concerns that the ECFA will make Taiwan too dependent on the mainland.

China is already Taiwan’s biggest market, accounting for 40 percent of exports, and is the island’s largest trading partner. Japan is second.

“I much prefer the term ‘country-country interdependence,’ ” Chao said, pointing to members of the European Union that “have sacrificed traditional sovereignty” for the sake of economic collaboration.

Meanwhile, some experts say Taipei has grown careless about its traditional friendship with Japan due to the shift in focus on China.

Earlier this month, Masaki Saito, Japan’s top envoy to Taiwan, resigned as director of the Interchange Association, Tokyo’s de facto embassy in Taipei.

Saito stepped down after he angered the Ma administration in May by referring to Taiwan’s international status as “unresolved.” Ma blocked Saito from contacting him, the prime minister or the foreign minister, effectively making his job in Taiwan impossible.

“The way President Ma treated Ambassador Saito in such an unfriendly manner will definitely reinforce the image that he is a Chinese nationalist,” Jaushieh Joseph Wu, research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in the National Chengchi University in Taipei, said earlier this month. Wu used to serve in the previous Democratic Progressive Party government.

Kuo Chen-lung, former deputy editor-in-chief of the China Times, a national daily in Taiwan, agreed that the government’s response to Saito was “disproportional.”

“It was very rude for a foreign representative to comment or even take a stand on domestic issues,” he said, but added that Saito had only taken the same stance as the proindependence opposition party.

Saito’s resignation is the latest incident that has threatened to sour Japan-Taiwan relations.

Shortly after Ma took office last year, Taiwan’s then prime minister, Liu Chao-shiuan, threatened war with Japan over a collision between Taiwanese and Japanese vessels in disputed waters. Meanwhile, territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea continue to be claimed by Taiwan, Japan and China.

According to Wu, Ma displays a streak of anti-Japan nationalism that runs counter to the feelings of many Taiwanese, who see Japan as an ally against China.

“When the DPP was in power, Taiwan was described by some Japanese politicians as the only Japan-friendly country in East Asia,” Wu said.

But Kuo said Taipei must wait for the new administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to clarify its stance toward Taiwan before it can build on the friendship.

“Hatoyama talks about forming an East Asia community, but he does not mention any relations with Taiwan,” Kuo said.

Not only is China a priority over Japan in Taipei’s international relations, the mainland is also catching up with Japan on the number of tourists visiting Taiwan.

Under Ma’s administration, direct flights across the Taiwan Strait started last July. About 760,000 mainlanders have flocked to Taiwan this year compared with 850,000 Japanese, with Chinese visitors boosting the Taiwanese economy by $930 million since last year, according to the government’s Tourism Bureau.

But the tight spending habits of the Chinese mean the Japanese remain important clients, according to David Hsieh, deputy director general of the Tourism Bureau.

“Japanese people stay two or three days in one place, but mainlanders spend just one day,” he said. “They come in groups of 50 to 100, but they do not spend money, and they haggle. They can spend as low as $60 a day.”

Hsieh added that the government continues to spend the most money on Japan in terms of tourism advertising.

Taiwanese interest in traveling to Japan is also still strong. More than 1.2 million Taiwanese tourists visited Japan last year, second only in number to South Koreans, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Meanwhile, Taipei’s efforts to foster warmer relations with Beijing are not welcomed by all Taiwanese.

“Taiwan’s interest should be first when negotiating with China,” said 34-year-old Shengming Wang, an industry analyst at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research in Taipei.

“Most people still don’t exactly know the profits and impacts that would come about by signing the ECFA,” he added.

Wang said many people in Taiwan, including himself, consider themselves Taiwanese, independent from their ancestral roots in mainland China.

According to a government survey last May, 65 percent of the population think of themselves as Taiwanese while only 11 percent feel they are Chinese. About 18 percent see themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, while the rest have no opinion.