On April 25, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and the leader of the major opposition party held their first televised debate on the FTA-like agreement with China. President Ma said he will protect Taiwan’s sovereignty yet bolster the island’s economy by signing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, representing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) disagreed, charging that the pact would harm Taiwan politically and economically. The Taiwanese people are split on the benefits of the ECFA, so the heated exchange was an effort by both parties to win over skeptical supporters.
President Ma: ECFA needed to “develop a golden decade”
The debate focused on the need for the ECFA and its possible impacts. President Ma stressed that trade is the lifeline of Taiwan and the island cannot survive without foreign trade. During their eight years in power, the DPP adopted a closed-door policy toward China, causing Taiwan – originally the geographic center of East Asia – to be marginalized. “We cannot wait. I want to lead Taiwan to recover the lost eight years and move to a golden decade.” His aim is to recharge Taiwan’s economy so it can once again lead the Four Asian Tigers.
It is also crucial that the ECFA be signed given the many FTA alliances between Taiwan’s neighbors. When the countries in Asia rushed to ink FTA alliances with each other, only Taiwan and North Korea were left isolated and excluded without any FTA.
President Ma said he is working to prevent hundreds of thousands of workers in Taiwan sitting idle and watching orders go to South Korea, Japan, and the ASEAN countries. He wants to do his best to keep factories operating in Taiwan and to protect employment opportunities on the island.
The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen disagrees with President Ma’s assessment. She sees the ECFA as a wrong decision “made by misjudging the situation.” With a “must sign” as a precondition, Ma is losing his bargaining power and is in-effect surrendering Taiwan’s sovereignty. She emphasized that people are uncertain about the ECFA. And, it is the government’s responsibility to distribute the benefits of trade. If the benefits remain concentrated in the hands of a few industries, the decision would lose its legitimacy, according to Tsai.
President Ma argued that no matter what happens in the signing of the ECFA or any future consultation, he is committed to defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and dignity. This will never change. Rebuffing Tsai’s argument that only big companies would benefit from an ECFA, Ma noted the relationship between large enterprises and small businesses are like “a bunch of rice dumplings attached through its strings.” If the heads of these strings get loose, all the dumplings would fall to the ground. He said, “Many small and medium-sized enterprises are satellite factories of the larger enterprises. They are mutually dependent, not antagonistic.”
He added that to reduce the impacts on Taiwan’s 17 traditional industries, the government has earmarked a NT$95 billion (US$3 billion) budget to help these industries transition or upgrade their competitiveness.
Tsai: “Taiwanese people have other options!”
Chairwoman Tsai said, “Taiwanese people have other choices.” Through the WTO, APEC, or other bilateral and regional trade, Taiwan can strengthen its economic and trade relations with China and other countries without being trapped into signing the ECFA so Taiwan would be obliged to widely open its domestic market within ten years.
President Ma explained that the pace of Asian economic integration is moving quickly. If the government signs an FTA with China to fully open Taiwan’s market in one step, the impacts on Taiwan’s domestic industries would be too huge. In accounting for it, his government wants to delay the impacts with the signing of the ECFA, which would of open up Taiwan’s market gradually. President Ma said the ECFA is not sugar-coated poison. Signing the ECFA would affect about 100,000 people, including those in 17 vulnerable, mass production industries, but this does not necessarily mean unemployment. He said it is an exaggeration for the DPP to estimate an impact on 5.9 million people without saying how these figures were derived.
In addressing how the ECFA would widen the gap between the rich and the poor in Taiwan, President Ma said the imbalance could be rectified through taxation and social welfare programs. It does not make sense to reject the ECFA due to the gap between the rich and the poor.
Public support for ECFA rises after televised debate
After the debate, a poll conducted by the Taipei-based China Times showed that 63 percent of respondents felt the debate helped them reach a better understanding of the ECFA. However, 23 percent said the debate still left them unclear about the nature of the agreement. Regarding the performance of the debaters, 41 percent of those polled thought Ma did a better job than Tsai, while 28 percent thought the opposite.
A United Daily News survey indicated that 46 percent of respondents felt better informed about the ECFA after watching the debate, but 44 percent still professed to feeling “in the dark” when it comes to the contents of the ECFA. Overall, 43 percent of respondents thought Ma did a good job, while 30 percent thought Tsai did.
A third poll, conducted by the Liberty Times found that nearly 60 percent of respondents felt that an ECFA referendum should be held before an agreement is signed. The paper’s survey revealed that 35 percent believed there was no need for such an agreement. Only 28 percent of those surveyed were in favor of inking an ECFA with the mainland, with 36 percent seeing the agreement as having no effect.
Commons Daily News columnist Chang Lang said everyone in Taiwan has his or her own opinion as to who had the upper hand in the Ma-Tsai debate. He observed that as for the real-time television poll after the debate, the majority of the audience watching the pro-independence SET TV opposed the signing of the ECFA while those watching the televisions of CTi and ETtoday supported the signing of the ECFA. No matter how many times President Ma and DPP Chairwoman Tsai debate, the fundamental blocks of pro-unification and pro-independence will never budge, Chang noted.