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[Kavi Chongkittavorn] Can withering Taiwan engage ASEAN?

The mood in Taipei today is of concern and anxiety. Why? The Taiwanese lai bai xing (commoners) feel quite strongly that the world’s soon-to-be largest economy will eventually usurp up their island, known as Taiwan. Indeed, some even believe that growing economic dependency on the mainland is a kiss of death which they cannot avoid. Tourists, brides, students, agricultural and manufactured products and huge capital are pouring across the Taiwan Straits all at once. China’s purchasing power has undeniably pumped up Taiwan’s economy. 

Talking to these people on downtown streets yielded a deep sense of indignation. Those who live in the more prosperous north prefer a Taiwan that can engage without upsetting the mainland all the time, while their fellow citizens in the southern part exhibit a fiercer desire for independence. They love to challenge Beijing’s authorities from time to time. This prevailing mixed sentiment will determine whether the current leader, President Ma Yingjeou, will have another shot at his presidency when a general election is due next year.

The mood is in stark contrast to the second term of former President Chen Suibien a few years back. At that time, the Taiwanese government was a bit gung ho and was very vocal against the mainlanders, bolstered by a strong Washington backing under the Bush administration. Before Ma came to power in 2008, contacts between the peoples across the straits were moderate at all levels. Since then, there has been unprecedented economic cooperation and other forms of exchange. The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, effective as of this month, is considered the zenith of their bilateral cooperation.

While Taiwan continues to register high economic growth, around 8 percent last year, the dividend of new openness with China has not yet filtered down to the lao bai xing’s level. They say that the increased trade flows and tariff reductions benefit only big corporations with strong links with the government and the ruling party, Kuomingtang.

Of late, media reports and analysis acknowledged that the uneven distribution of income is a cause of great concern for the Ma government, which can in turn block the KMT’s return to power if it is not seriously addressed. The outcome of November’s municipality election also showed that the KMT was losing its magic, which brought them to power with a landside. Now, President Ma’s popularity has dropped to 30 percent, as his government has been further beset by corruption charges as well as the impacts of sloppy management of natural disasters in late 2009, which continues to raise the public angst.

Interestingly, Taiwan seriously hopes to use deeper and broader ties with China to lure in ASEAN members. Taipei hopes that the ECFA with China, which is likely to include social and cultural matters in future, will be extended to the grouping. Taipei officials are confident that the current China-Taiwan friendship will make the members less recalcitrant to augment economic cooperation with the island, especially in the area of trade and investment. So far, only Singapore has taken up the challenge by holding talks with Taiwan to conclude a similar agreement. The Philippines and Malaysia are also pursuing the same path. Thailand was also approached, but to no avail.

Since its departure from the United Nations over three decades ago, Taiwan has witnessed their relations with ASEAN gradually slipping away. Instead the island looks towards the U.S. and Japan as its main allies. Although Taiwanese investments are far larger than the mainland within the region, the one-China policy has impeded further contacts and prospects for expansion. For instance, the island’s plan to become a dialogue partner of ASEAN since the middle of the 1990s has been repeatedly rejected by ASEAN, albeit with huge economic toll. However, the last two decades also saw the rapid strengthening of all around ASEAN-China relations, which served as an automatic breaker for Taiwan’s diplomatic assertiveness.

ASEAN members, such as Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, understand the benefits that closer ties with Taiwan would bring even though this could raise eyebrows in Beijing. They have attracted the island’s direct investment and increased labor quotas quite successfully in their own ways. At present, Indonesia has the largest number of workers of nearly 150,000 working in Taiwan. In the past few years, Vietnam has become the No. 1 investment destination for Taiwanese businessmen and the number of Vietnamese workers now ranks No. 2, just a few tens of thousands less than Indonesians.

Thailand, which has faithfully pursued the one-China policy, has lost out to both these countries. On the surface, political uncertainties in Thailand has been the major reason for the decline of Thailand-Taiwan ties. At a deeper level, there were not sufficient dialogues between the two governments. Successive Thai governments have expressed disdain whenever there were contact initiatives from Taiwan.

Throughout the 1990s, Thailand was the main recipient of Taiwan’s largest direct investment, which reached over $10 billion accumulatively last year. Throughout the past decade, over 100,000 Thai construction workers went to the island each year.

Internationally, Taiwan’s diplomatic space has expanded a bit due to China’s confidence and acquiescence. Question remains whether the island can expand its ties with ASEAN under the current circumstances.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

Kavi Chongkittavorn is an assistant group editor of Nation Multimedia Group in Bangkok. ― Ed.

(The Nation/Asia News Network)
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