Monday, February 01, 2010

Arms sale will not affect ECFA talks

Despite Beijing’s shrill response to the announcement on Friday that the US would submit for congressional approval about US$6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan — a reaction that includes the suspension of military-to-military exchanges and sanctions targeted at US firms, among others — one aspect of the triangular relationship is unlikely to be affected: cross-strait negotiations on an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA).

Some analysts have suggested that China is expected to punish Taiwan over the arms announcement by suspending economic exchanges. Raymond Wu, managing director of the Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence, told Reuters’ Ralph Jennings that the signing of an ECFA, which Taipei hopes to achieve sometime in the middle of this year, could be pushed back as far as 2011.

This is highly unlikely, however. First of all, prior to the arms sale announcement, Beijing had already stated the possibility that there could be delays in the signing of an ECFA, which tells us that differences over the nuts and bolts of the agreement, rather than external factors such as weapons sales, could affect the timeline.

Secondly, Beijing has focused its wrath on Washington over the arms deal, mostly because punishing Taiwan would be counterproductive. Beijing has been trying to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese; lashing out at it would quickly undermine whatever gains it has made in that department.

Third, Beijing does not want to make the life of the increasingly unpopular President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) more difficult than it already is. Ma’s administration has been very accommodating to Beijing’s desires, and despite the occasional bump in the road, Ma is seen by Beijing as an ally, or at least as someone who will facilitate its ultimate objective of annexing Taiwan.

Finally, delaying or nixing an ECFA would go against Beijing’s long-term ambitions of unification. Notwithstanding the economic nature of the agreement, Chinese leaders have long stated — and done so publicly — that an ECFA is a means to an end, and that the end is political: unification. By tying Taiwan’s economy to that of China, Beijing is maximizing the likelihood that it will succeed in achieving “peaceful” unification. Killing that instrument over an arms sale that only superficially alters the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait is therefore not an option for Beijing, however “angry” it is.

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