President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has continually used the argument that without the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), Taiwan would become further marginalized in the Chinese economy and in the international community. This argument is wrongheaded.
For some time now, it has been quite obvious that in China, economics is politics and politics is economics. This can be said for any country. Throughout modern history, economic performance has often been a key determining factor in a nation’s regional and international influence. Moreover, in terms of regime survival and political legitimacy, “It’s the economy, stupid,” was an important point in political discussions even before it became a popular phrase in the 1992 US presidential campaign.
And it is no coincidence that the side that used that phrase in 1992 won the presidential election.
Taken in a Chinese context, “It’s the economy, stupid,” has been one of the most important factors not only in China’s rise over the past three decades, but also in the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing hold on power. By lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, giving citizens higher standards of living and offering hope for an even brighter and more prosperous economic future, the Communist Party has hitched their regime’s — and the entire nation’s — survival to economic growth and might.
Taiwan has also experienced a long period of economic growth, although its own period of growth began earlier than China’s, and for anyone who would argue that Taiwan’s economic situation is not politicized, “It’s the economy, stupid,” was a big factor in Ma’s free-falling popularity rating at the end of 2008 and through last year.
Moreover, anyone arguing that Ma’s falling popularity was merely the result of a political attack by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to take advantage of poor economic performance, I remind you of the political trouble former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) found himself in during the early years of his tenure when Taiwan faced an economic downturn.
When the Ma administration says the ECFA is purely economic and not political, what it’s really saying is that nothing political is explicitly mentioned in the document. However, given what we already know about the interplay of politics and economics, and given what we know about the nature of every regime, not just the Chinese regime, it is obvious that politics is implied in this economic document.
Taking the fact that politics and economics are intimately connected, how can Ma’s administration claim that Taiwan will be marginalized in the Chinese market? Is it possible that Beijing would allow Taiwan to slip out of the Chinese market and thus risk completely losing Taiwan politically?
If, as the president himself has admitted, Beijing is using the ECFA for political purposes, and if, as those studying cross-strait relations and Chinese politics think, China is using its economic clout to unify Taiwan and China politically, then how can anyone in his or her right mind be concerned about Taiwan losing its edge in the Chinese market? Does anyone honestly believe that China would rather have a closer relationship with ASEAN at the cost of completely losing Taiwan?
To the contrary, it is Taiwan’s remaining political — and to some extent economic — independence from China that keeps Taiwan central in East Asian, as well as global, security and economic discussions. The combination of this centrality and the constant threat to Taiwan’s security, sovereignty and democratic governance, makes Taiwan a focal point in any study of Northeast and/or Southeast Asia.
Taiwan’s integration with China, be it economic or political — is there really any difference — would instead lead to the marginalization of Taiwan. If Taiwan were to become another Hunan, Shandong or Heilongjiang Province, — or even another Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region — then Taiwan would become a locality that would be studied and treated internationally much like Michigan in the US, Komi in the Russian Federation or Manitoba in Canada.
Taiwan would no longer be of any real or practical concern to any other international player. Additionally, how many nations or economies can you name that have free-trade agreements specifically with Michigan, Komi, Manitoba, or Inner Mongolia, for that matter?
Talk about marginalization.
Nathan Novak is a US citizen residing in Taiwan and is a writer, researcher and student of China and the Asia-Pacific region, specializing in cross-strait relations and Chinese and Taiwanese politics and foreign policies.
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