Written by Ben Goren.

During the last six years President Ma has signed over eighteen agreements with the PRC. During this period he has repeatedly stressed that he would not enter into political talks with China and his claim has gone largely uncontested in Taiwanese and international media. But in order to understand events and sentiments on the ground in Taiwan, it is necessary to scrutinize Ma’s claims.

In the context of Taiwan-China relations ‘political talks’ is widely understood to mean discussion of how to facilitate an end to PRC hostility towards de facto Taiwanese independence, and how to begin discussing integrating or ‘unifying’ the ROC into the PRC. Typical scenarios for the latter are along the lines of arrangements for the return of Hong Kong or Macau. This is the elephant in the room that pro-China KMT elites dare not speak about in public, knowing that there is simply no public support for such an idea.  If anything, support for the continuation of Taiwan’s de facto independence, in the guise of the Republic of China, remains an overwhelming majority opinion (somewhere between 70~80%). Several longitudinal polls suggest that absent Chinese threats to annex Taiwan, a majority of Taiwanese would actually prefer to declare de jure independence and establish a a new nation, probably under the name Taiwan. For President Ma, and PRC President Xi Jinping, the idea of Taiwan being independent from both the PRC and ROC would be nothing short of a historical tragedy for the Chinese people and nation.

President Ma’s determination to improve cross-strait relations is sensible. No one wants a state of tension between China and Taiwan that could end in military conflict. As part of this, some commentators have suggested that improving economic relations utilizing the theory of interdependence, might dissuade China from adventurism. China owes more debt in trade to Taiwan than any other country and it is arguable that the collapse of the Taiwanese economy in the event of conflict could precipitate the collapse of the Chinese economy too. The US also has subtly, and at times not so subtly, backed Ma Ying-jeou’s China policy, and un-ironically rebuked the opposition Democratic Progressive Party for being counter productive in reducing tensions, despite the fact that ‘tensions’ are clearly a policy construct of the PRC and not the DPP or Taiwanese in general.

The problem here is two-fold. First whilst Ma’s economic  rapprochement policies appear in isolation to be a positive step, analysts consistently ignore the fact that for Ma, economics are only one half of the equation underpinning his vision for ending cross-Strait tensions. The other half is the political dimension that is apparently too sensitive to even be worth discussing. Second, analysis of economic interactions between Taiwan and China often ignore the political dimensions, and the power and economic asymmetry of these interactions. For China, certainly when it comes to Taiwan, economic policies are a corollary of political policies, all of which have the same objective – the permanent incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC in some form or another Pretending that this isn’t the case is wishful thinking or dangerous self-delusion. Unless there is some revolutionary change in the political structure and leadership of the PRC or a cataclysmic economic event that radically realigns PRC political priorities, it is pretty much certain that China’s ultimate designs on Taiwan will not change for the foreseeable future. Thus, for the PRC, every economic policy, mode of interaction, trade, and agreement is a mechanism for eventually eliminating all economic incentives currently serving as the foundation of Taiwanese support for the continuation of Taiwan’s self determination and de facto independence. Once China has neutralized and emasculated Taiwan’s economic sovereignty, the question of political sovereignty becomes mute or logically heading in only one direction.

Thus, when President Ma talks of ‘economic questions first, then political matters later’ what many Taiwanese understand is that he is actually proposing the economic emasculation of the country’s economic sovereignty as a precursor to declaring that negotiations on Taiwan’s political status with the PRC are now an irreversible fait accompli, whether those negotiations are first dressed up as a ‘Peace treaty’ or more explicitly as a road map towards Taiwan’s entry into the PRC, as an SAR or semi-autonomous satrapy in the manner of Hong Kong or Macau.

Finally, even if we dismiss these fears as the fruit of paranoia, what political matters could Ma imagine Taiwan needs to discuss? The KMT declared an end to the mobilization against the ‘illegitimate communist authorities […] on the mainland’ in 1991. Peace treaties are usually bilateral declarations signed between states and since the PRC does not recognize Taiwan as a state the only ‘peace’ that can be signed would be between ‘ROC authorities’ and ‘PRC authorities’ which in essence would have little more substance than a declaration of the end of hostilities between the KMT and CCP. It is arguable that those hostilities actually already ended back in 1992. For the PRC, ‘political talks’ have one meaning and purpose only and no matter how Ma and the KMT dress up their intent for domestic and international audiences, it will not change the conditions under which the PRC comes to the table. Thus, when Ma talks of discussing ‘political matters later’, the only logical conclusion is that he sees it as either desirable or inevitable that Taiwan sue for peace – and in turn concede it’s de facto sovereignty.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once campaigned on a slogan of ‘the rights we enjoy reflect the responsibilities we owe’. This clever play on words contained a hidden relationship – ‘rights’ flowed from the observance of ‘responsibilities’, not the other way around. The two were neither mutual nor separable. So too it is with President Ma’s ‘economics first, political matters later’.  Although it beguiles the reader into thinking that political matters might be contingent or optional, in fact they are the stated goal, and economic questions are the first step towards facilitating that goal.  Political talks are not optional, they are the ultimate objective underpinning President Ma’s economic policies in respect of China.  Put another way, economic integration is the tool to achieve conditions ripe for political integration.

And that is why so many Taiwanese have resisted ECFA and the Trade Services agreement. They are neither stupid, irrational, unpatriotic, self-defeating, or blind to economic realities as Ma, the KMT, the PRC, and the foreign finance and corporate shills that regurgitate their talking points would have you believe.  They know their economy, know its strengths and weaknesses, and see the very real contingent and often negative changes on the ground that have already emerged in just the last six years as a result of the agreements the Ma Government has signed with China.  They know the direction President Ma is heading in, and many of them are fearful.  They do not want to concede either their economic or political sovereignty, whatever weight it carries on the international stage. And they feel their President is not listening. And that is in part why the students have occupied the legislature and why a majority of the Taiwanese public appear to support them. It may eventually also be why the KMT end up losing a considerable number of votes in the 2014 seven-in-one elections this coming November, and perhaps even the 2016 presidential and legislative elections.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan, one of the most prominent blogs on Taiwan in English. He tweets @BanGaoRen.