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Taiwan sunflower movement dims cross-strait ties

Publication Date : 07-04-2014


Taiwan's Sunflower student movement will cast a long shadow on cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei. It will surely retard, if not reverse, the detente process that has been under way in the last six years under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

Just before the students began their occupation of the Legislative Yuan, or Parliament, from March 18, bilateral ties had seen a breakthrough.

For the first time since the Kuomintang government fled the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, the governments of the two sides met officially in February. Cabinet-level officials Zhang Zhijun of China's Taiwan Affairs Office and Wang Yu-chi of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council met in Nanjing. The two sides are now mulling over a summit between the two presidents.

However, the eruption of the Sunflower movement brings this process to a halt.

The students' rationale for staging the movement - their objection to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) - is debatable, for the pact will benefit the island's economy greatly. It will open up the Chinese market to 80 types of services from Taiwan while Taiwan needs to open up only 64, among which many are already liberalised under its World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations.

According to economic modelling by the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, the pact would add US$400 million (S$503 million) to the total annual output of Taiwan's services sector, a hike of 37 per cent, and 12,000 jobs. By comparison, the mainland's export of service products to Taiwan would increase by only US$100 million, or 9 per cent, annually.

In other words, Taiwan's gain is much greater than China's.

From a purely economic standpoint, the Taiwanese should welcome an agreement heavily skewed in its favour.

However, the students object to the pact not just because they worry about the competition from Chinese businesses it will introduce to Taiwan's small and medium-sized businesses.

Their bigger fear is that it will open the way for political infiltration by China into the island, given that Beijing's ultimate aim is the unification of Taiwan with the mainland.

Thus, what appeared to be a goodwill perk for the island resulted in evoking the deep-rooted fear among Taiwanese of political integration with China. That thousands of Taiwanese have rallied outside Parliament to support the students shows the latter are not alone in their concerns.

Yet, the students have failed to see that political infiltration through the services sector - if it does take place - can hardly be avoided even without the CSSTA.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his trip to the European Union last month, won a pledge from the Europeans to support China's accession to the Really Good Friends of Services (RGF) club, a sub-group in the WTO discussing a standalone services agreement, of which Taiwan is a member. Once such a pact is signed, Taiwan's doors will be flung open to the Chinese services sector, CSSTA or not.

Many people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait also frown on the students' tactics. They kept changing and escalating their demands, first asking for a clause-by-clause review of the CCSTA, then for its complete abrogation. Now they want to not just scrap the trade deal but also overhaul the island's Constitution.

By occupying Parliament and ransacking the building of the Executive Yuan or central government, the students have shown no respect for law and order. This has greatly marred their cause and their image. Still, the Sunflower movement has very serious implications for Beijing.

First of all, it shows that the younger generation in Taiwan is averse to the idea of unification. Indicative of this is the proclamation by student leader Lin Fei-fan that "the movement redefines cross-strait relations. Henceforth, the fate of Taiwan shall be decided by 23 million Taiwanese". This sounds like a declaration of independence.

It shows that Beijing's long-term objective of peaceful unification with Taiwan is doomed to fail because few among the younger generation subscribe to such an idea.

The student movement also shows that Beijing's policy of incremental political absorption of Taiwan via economic integration has failed. Despite providing a broad range of economic benefits, it has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.

In the past, this policy seemed to have worked well in softening the anti-China stance of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In the presidential election of 2012, the DPP lost substantial votes in southern Taiwan, traditionally its stronghold, thanks to China's opening up of its vast market to agricultural products from the island's south. Bowing to the reality of China's ability to influence Taiwan's politics, a number of senior DPP leaders then made their way to the mainland to try to engage the Chinese authorities.

The latest such move was by former DPP head Tsai Ing-wen who sent a delegation to China early this year as a goodwill gesture.

Unhappy at the DPP jumping on China's bandwagon, the student protesters decided to distance themselves from all political parties. Thus, in the Sunflower movement, the DPP has found itself embarrassingly marginalised. Although some DPP leaders showed up at Parliament, the students made clear that they did not want the involvement of any political party, and the DPP leaders failed to gain control of the movement.

For Beijing, a more practical concern is, given the current crisis, the DPP is likely to win the 2016 presidential election. Since the DPP is unwilling to scrap the independence clause in its party charter, cross-strait relations will enter a chilly phase, offsetting the gains made during Ma's tenure. Things will go back to square one.

This has led Professor Zhu Weidong, deputy director of the Taiwan Institute at top Chinese think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to lament at a recent meeting in Hong Kong: "We spent the last six years just stopping Taiwan from veering towards independence, we had not succeeded in changing its course towards unification. Now we have to start all over again."


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