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ECFA talk with MAC Minister Lai Shin-yuan

[Source: Taiwan Today] [By Chiayi Ho]

The proposed economic cooperation framework agreement between Taiwan and mainland China has been capturing headlines ever since the ROC government announced it was investigating the merits of the pact in late 2008. In an effort to better inform the public both in Taiwan and abroad about the ECFA, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Lai Shin-yuan spoke exclusively on the potentially lucrative trade agreement with “Taiwan Today” Feb. 26.

Taiwan Today: What kind of measures has the MAC put in place for promoting the ECFA? And how will the government keep the public abreast of issues pertaining to the pact?

Lai: In keeping with President Ma Ying-jeou’s directive to prioritize promotion of the pact’s advantages, the ECFA is now a priority for the fifth round of talks set down for the first half of this year between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and mainland China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait.

A series of measures aimed at informing the public and related industries about the ECFA have been put in place. These involve producing television commercials and short films, holding public forums to communicate with the residents of central and southern Taiwan and broadcasting 12 informational radio programs in different dialects including Mandarin, Holo and Hakka every week.

In addition, publishing easy-to-understand brochures, research documents and position papers should play a significant role in helping the public come to grips with the issue.

TT: What is your position on calls by legislators for the establishment of a special task force to review all SEF-ARATS agreements?

Lai: When it comes to the Legislature establishing a special task force overseeing all cross-strait agreements, we respect the body’s right to do so.

However, supervisory mechanisms dedicated to screening all cross-strait pacts have been employed by the Legislature long before President Ma took office May 20, 2008. These include committees, joint committees and plenary meetings, all on a multilevel basis. From this perspective, the Legislature already acts as a watchdog on SEF-ARATS pacts.

In addition, according to the Statute Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, the ECFA, along with the majority of cross-strait agreements already, require legislative approval before going into effect.

TT: Is it necessary to hold a referendum on the ECFA?

Lai: Given that the ECFA is solely an economic pact, it should be discussed on rational grounds through a sound democratic mechanism so as to establish consensus among all segments of society. In other words, for the government, any agreement signed with Beijing must satisfy three fundamental conditions: need, public support and legislative monitoring.

Yet, considering such a pact involves highly technical issues, it is inappropriate and unnecessary to resort to a referendum. But any move to initiate the ECFA referendum would be respected by the executive.

TT: Is there a connection between signing the ECFA with Beijing and concluding free trade agreements with other major economies?

Lai: The ‘flexible diplomacy’ approach advocated by President Ma, which involves building trust, setting aside controversies and creating a win-win situation across the strait, has improved Taiwan’s standing in the international community. For example, several countries have publicly expressed interest in concluding an FTA with Taiwan once the ECFA is inked. Thus, the agreement with Beijing is crucial as it can be used to secure FTAs with other economies.

Considering whether Taiwan’s right to ink FTAs with other economies should be a precondition when it comes to signing the ECFA, we believe there is no need to include such a term in negotiations. If this demand were included in ECFA talks, then it would be impossible to deny that Taiwan’s status had been downgraded.

TT: What are the benefits for Taiwan in terms of signing the ECFA with mainland China?

Lai: The purpose of inking the ECFA is to help the people of Taiwan do business and boost the country’s competitiveness. Under the FTA between mainland China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which took effect this year, nearly 90 percent of products imported from ASEAN members carry zero tariffs. Given that tariffs will still be imposed on Taiwan-made products, we face losing our competitive edge. From this perspective, there is no denying that signing the ECFA is of great urgency.

TT: What kind of assistance will the government provide to ECFA-affected industries?

Lai: A series of measures aimed at minimizing any possible negative impacts brought about by the ECFA has been proposed. These include restructuring industries to sharpen competitiveness, and providing a NT$95-billion (US$3 billion) lifeline over 10 years to help businesses hardest hit by the trade pact.

According to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, ECFA-affected industries include those producing bags and suitcases, bedding, ceramics, clothing, herbal medicine, home appliances, pesticides, printing, shoes, socks, sweaters, swimwear, stone, towels, underwear, wood and woven socks.

TT: Do you think the ECFA will deepen Taiwan’s economic reliance on mainland China?

Lai: If Taiwan does not sign the ECFA, the country risks being marginalized and losing competitiveness overseas. Moreover, Taiwan would be in a precarious economic situation if our neighbors all proceed with economic integration. From this perspective, concluding the ECFA has nothing to do with deepening Taiwan’s economic reliance on mainland China.

In addition, the ECFA can also help Taiwan pursue business activities with other countries on an equal footing. In this way, Taiwan’s businessmen can expand their reach in the global market, as opposed to concentrating on the mainland Chinese market. (JSM)

Write to Chiayi Ho at  chiayi@mail.gio.gov.tw