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Taiwan-China talks need their own SOP
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-01-17 03:02 PM
President Ma Ying-jeou hailed last year’s service trade pact with China as a milestone and a major step forward to more free trade, normal economic relations and closer integration with the global community.

Yet, more than six months later, the Legislative Yuan still has not approved the deal, despite the promise of a clause-by-clause review and vote.

The main reason for the stalemate is the lack of confidence in the way the pact was reached. The government kept even the most basic elements of the negotiations, such as the business sectors targeted for opening, secret from the public and even from the parties immediately affected, in this case the small and medium enterprises which form the backbone of Taiwan’s economic life.

In order to prevent more future embarrassment for the government and safeguard the rights of Taiwanese businesses, a set of Standard Operating Procedures should be established about how to proceed in similar cases.

All cross-straits negotiations and contacts should be subjected to the principles of democratic procedure and information transparency, while rules should also include risk assessment and studies on how to avoid conflict of interest, as well as a procedure for public hearings in order to make sure that the talks end in a result acceptable to the people of Taiwan and serving their best interests.

Cross-straits interaction and negotiations for treaties and agreements should also be subject to the terms of the United Nations International Charter for Civil and Political Rights and the International Charter for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in order to break through the monopoly occupied by the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang and by major business groups from both sides. The accord with the UN documents would also allow treaties to safeguard basic human rights, employment and labor conditions, public hygiene and environmental protection, and the rights of labor, farmers and the middle class.

The service trade pact is not the only case of talks with China the public should be worried about, since a goods trade pact is still on the government’s wish list. Even more important, the Ma Administration is also pushing for Taiwan to be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

President Ma has called back his former vice president, experienced trade negotiator Vincent Siew, to head a taskforce to work on Taiwan’s bid for the two regional economic structures.

There is also pressure to reach more Free Trade Agreements after those with New Zealand and Singapore, and after the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement which formed the base for last year’s service trade pact.

Taiwan’s traditional competitor, South Korea, which has already concluded seven FTAs, saw its National Assembly draw up a law guiding procedures in trade negotiations, compelling the government to present an evaluation report, hold hearings at regular intervals and communicate with the Legislature. The experience of Japan and South Korea shows that a complete legal basis and a certain level of transparency are an absolute prerequisite for bringing trade negotiations to a successful conclusion.

The Democratic Progressive Party and other opposition and social groups are right to ask for more legislation and a more open attitude from the government because Taiwan is more vulnerable to international treaties than other countries. China has never dropped its claims that Taiwan is a mere province, while it still keeps over a thousand missiles trained on the island. Taiwan cannot afford a single misstep, because that could result in an irreparable loss of sovereignty.

Considering the Ma Administration’s poor performance in the economic area over the past six years, it is not surprising that there is a strong suspicion about where talks with China are heading over the remaining two years of his final term.

Beijing has been pushing for political talks, while Ma has claimed he is not avoiding that pressure. In 2011, he mentioned a peace agreement, and much more recently, he suggested a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at this autumn’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. The president’s urge to be mentioned in future history books shows the need for a framework to be in place as soon as possible, before he travels down a slippery slope that could end with Taiwan losing key elements of its sovereignty.

It is that spirit of suspicion and lack of confidence in its own government that has inspired the Legislative Yuan to restrict Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi’s room to maneuver during his upcoming groundbreaking visit to China, where he will meet his counterpart, Zhang Zhijun of the Taiwan Affairs Office.

Anxious he will overstep the boundaries of his mission, the Legislature has ordered him not to accept or comment positively on any statements from his Chinese hosts which might emphasize Beijing’s traditional ‘One China’ views and opposition to Taiwan Independence. Wang will also be barred from signing documents, discuss or issue news releases about the same topics or about a possible peace agreement, a military confidence-building mechanism or other one-sided Chinese favorites.

Once he returns from China, Wang will be forced to brief the Legislature and will be held politically responsible if he violated the above restrictions in any way.

Even before he leaves for China, the spotlight should be turned on the Ma Administration official, not to promote his political standing, but to monitor his every single word and every single action.

The member of a government known for its frequent missteps on domestic and international policies needs to be restrained by the interests of its own people, and that process can only be realized if a proper set of standards is in place. Negotiations with other countries are already tough, but those with China include numerous hidden traps which can blow up in the face of Taiwanese officials.

In the future, agreements with China should be discussed before government officials write their signatures on the dotted line. Key sectors of the economy which are likely to be affected by agreements should be consulted beforehand about their wishes and options, instead of being faced with the results of secretive talks between government officials.

The imbroglio following the signing of the service trade pact shows why business, the public and the Legislative Yuan should be informed of the details of an agreement before it is signed, not after. The legislative review of last year’s pact could end up with some clauses being rejected, leading to the need to renegotiate parts of the agreement with China. While this is a logical consequence of the review, in the future the problems caused by such an approach could be avoided by having the Legislature look at each clause before the pact is signed.

Contacts and negotiations with China need their own set of Standard Operating Procedures, not only to protect Taiwan’s interests against the other side, but also against the shortsightedness of its own government.

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