Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Jumping the gun on ECFA benefits

It occurred to me on Monday night, as I was deciding which stories would go where in the paper, that all the countries, think tanks and individuals who have hailed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed between Taiwan and China last week have acted prematurely.

At most, as nobody except those who actually drafted and signed the document are aware of its full contents, what the would-be supporters of the ECFA should say is that they support the spirit of a trade agreement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. As the documents currently only exist in Chinese and have been kept at a safe distance from public scrutiny, even trade organizations like the WTO — which is expected to “review” the translated version of the document to ensure it complies with the international body’s regulations — have been premature in their embrace of the trade pact.

What is interesting is that while the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-dominated legislature in Taiwan is likely to “review” the document as a whole rather than clause by clause, as the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has requested, once it receives the English version of the document, the WTO would be expected to evaluate its contents in more than cursory fashion. In other words, the WTO’s review of the ECFA will likely be more thorough than that of the legislature. And of course, we can expect no “review” — not even the pretense of one — on authoritarian China’s side. 

Another question mark is whether Taiwan and China will, alongside the English translations, provide the Chinese originals so that the WTO can ascertain the legitimacy of the English versions it receives from the parties involved.

A possible scenario is one in which a document “approved” by the legislature is criticized on its finer points by the WTO (that is, of course, if the WTO does its job). How would Taiwan and China respond, then? Would they comply and make the appropriate corrections, or would they ignore the WTO, claiming that the trade agreement is a domestic matter, or one that involves two sides of the same coin? This is where the unanswered question of whether the ECFA is a treaty or not becomes so important. If the trade agreement is not regarded as a treaty (and therefore not involving two sovereign states, as only states can sign treaties), then how could the WTO have any say in the matter, as its mandate is to regulate trade between states? 

Already, there have been rumors that WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy privately believes the ECFA is a domestic matter (I even saw, though chose not to use, an except of an interview with Lamy by CNA in which he is quoted as referring to Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei.” Whether this is what he actually said, or revisionism by CNA editors, remains to be determined).

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