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Listen to Hillary Clinton
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-06-26 06:30 PM
Economic over-reliance on China could have harmful consequences for Taiwan’s political independence. The statement this time did not come from the Democratic Progressive Party, the Taiwan Solidarity Union or any of the many think tanks or civil groups sympathetic to Taiwan’s sovereignty and independence.

The words came from nobody less than former United States Secretary of State and potential 2016 presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton. In an interview with the Chinese-language Business Weekly, reportedly her first exclusive interview with Taiwan’s media, she urged caution in handling the relationship with Beijing.

Taiwan was becoming more vulnerable by increasing the reliance of its economy on China’s, she warned.

During the interview conducted in Los Angeles, she mentioned several times that Taiwan had arrived at a turning point. The country needs to consider how far it wants to go with the opening up to China and draw a line, she said.

Clinton warned that political independence and economic independence were closely linked. If your economic autonomy was being reduced, there would be consequences for your political autonomy. “You have to evaluate how far you can go before you lose your economic independence,” she told Business Weekly.

It was unavoidable that if Taiwan restored a balance in its relationship with China, Beijing would be angry and demand more benefits. With its economy still growing at a strong pace, China’s economy needs to expand, and Taiwan is a logical market.

Clinton compared Taiwan to the Ukraine, which has seen its hard-won independence eroded amid conflict with its ethnic Russian minority and economic blackmail due to its high-level energy dependence on Russia. Several European countries were also dependent on the import of energy products from Russia, which might eventually affect their policy decisions on issues like Ukraine.

Clinton warned that if Taiwan was not careful, a similar scenario could develop here, with Beijing using its economic clout and influence to force the country into a corner.

The former Secretary of State also advised caution about “unintended consequences.” Policies, decisions and agreements made today could have unexpected and far-reaching impact five to ten years in the future, she said. Therefore, Taiwan needed to think hard about where its present policies would take it a short time down the road.

Taiwan will find it harder and harder to resist demands from China as the latter’s economy grows even stronger, while its political influence will rise accordingly, Clinton said.

The publication of the interview comes at a time when the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou looks poised for another big leap forward in its relationship with China.

Not only is Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun paying his first official visit to Taiwan, but Ma’s Kuomintang has mobilized its lawmakers to force through the proposal for Special Economic Pilot Zones. In addition, the trade-in-services pact with China, which provoked the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students from March 18 to April 10, is also on the agenda for the current special legislative session.

The repeated insistence on forcing through measures which have met with widespread public doubt, opposition and rejection shows that the government has no measure on its plans for developing economic relations with China. The trade-in-services pact will be followed by a trade-in-goods accord if the government – and China – have their way.

After six years of negotiations, agreements and visits, it is more than time to step back and take a look at how much Taiwan’s room to maneuver has been affected by the developments. While without a doubt, some positive elements may have been achieved, the recent waves of protests prove that the government has been going too far too fast.

The 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement triggered a wave of protests, showing the anger of the public with concessions to China. The trade-in-services pact signed in June last year and the massive protests last March revealed the deep suspicions of the public with the Ma Administration’s headlong rush into cozier ties with Beijing.

The government has been priding itself it has achieved the most positive and peaceful relations with China since 1949, but it has failed to acknowledge the downsides.

Despite the economic agreements, China’s arms race still continues. It has not removed a single of its hundreds of missiles targeted on Taiwan, and it has failed to give the island more international space.

The trade concessions have still won no respect from China for Taiwan’s position as a sovereign and independent nation, as witnessed by its continued limited international space and restricted participation in global and regional organizations. While Ma has touted a diplomatic truce with China, Beijing seems not to have taken much notice, with Gambia still breaking off ties and other Taiwanese allies working on closer economic links with the communist country.

While China is not giving Taiwan extra space, Taiwan’s government is restricting its own space by making too many concessions.

Hillary Clinton’s words should provide President Ma and his administration with the opportunity to step back and launch a thorough evaluation of what has been done so far and of what Taiwan can still afford to do.

Ma should use his two remaining years in office as a breathing space for Taiwan during which he can limit the damage caused by his previous policies and build a consensus to set clear aims for the future.

First of all, the administration needs to launch a dialogue with critics and opposition, with social movements, with academics and business associations to discuss what kind of agreements are still possible to conclude without harming the country’s basic interests.

While the formula of a National Affairs Conference has been proposed several times before as a way to solve confrontations over a wide range of topics, it could still work in developing a consensus approach to the important relationship to China.

As Hillary Clinton points out, the very survival of Taiwan is at stake. Her lucid view of the cross-straits relationships should encourage Ma to do what he has not been willing to do domestically, namely to listen to opinions differing from his own and reflect on how Taiwan’s interests can best be defended before it’s too late.

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