Transparency Will Expedite FTA Negotiations
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 23, 2012
Summary: The Taiwan stock market continues to stumble. The regularly scheduled meeting of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Committee will be held on Thursday. The two sides will begin a new round of follow up ECFA consultations. They will address the mutual opening of markets, and add new items pertaining to the Taiwan stock market. ECFA cannot be quite as transparent as other bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). To the public, the government's FTA policy is smoke and mirrors. Do the pros in this case outweigh the cons? This is a question the government needs to ask itself.
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The Taiwan stock market continues to stumble. The regularly scheduled meeting of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Committee will be held on Thursday. The two sides will begin a new round of follow up ECFA consultations. They will address the mutual opening of markets, and add new items pertaining to the Taiwan stock market. ECFA cannot be quite as transparent as other bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). To the public, the government's FTA policy is smoke and mirrors. Do the pros in this case outweigh the cons? This is a question the government needs to ask itself.
Negotiating a bilateral FTA is the government's main economic and trade policy. Everyone from the president to the heads of industry have vowed to expedite the signing of an agreement. Everyone wants to get a leg up on South Korea, Singapore, and other major trading competitors, who already enjoy the advantages of FTAs. A few days ago President Ma even said he hoped to complete follow-up negotiations on ECFA with Mainland China, to sign economic cooperation agreements with New Zealand and Singapore, and to resume negotiations over the US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). If so, our economy will experience a rebirth. But in most in people's eyes FTA negotiations have stalled. They have yet to pay off. Is this mere appearance? Or is it fact? The public has no idea, and the government is unwilling to say.
Take FTA negotiations between Taipei and Singapore. FTA negotiations between South Korea and the European Union required a total of 19 months, from start to finish. Economic negotiations between us and Singapore are much smaller in scale than FTA negotiations between South Korea and the EU. The FTA between Taipei and Singapore was supposed to take only 12 months. Instead, it has already taken 19 months, and a signing is nowhere in sight. Worse still, Singapore demanded the recall of our representative to Singapore. Just how many items are on the Taipei/Singapore FTA agenda? We have already held many consultations. What exactly is the impasse? Did the recall of our representative to Singapore have anything to do with it? Outsiders have no idea. They don't even have any idea how far the talks have progressed.
Government officials may think that secret negotiations minimize outside interference, internal dissent, and political obstructionism by Beijing. But considering the lack of progress made with several FTAs, the alleged benefits of secrecy are far from obvious. On the contrary. secret negotiations offer protectionists a perfect refuge, Outsiders have no idea what is holding up the FTAs. They have no idea whether they should support the FTAs or not. They fear backroom deals over FTAs may discredit the government's policies. Even if the FTAs are eventually successful, the damage may be irreparable. .
FTA negotiations involve disputes between vested interests. They involve legal technicalities. They are difficult for outsiders to understand. But the United States, Europe, even Japan, Korea, and other countries do their best to explain what is going on, both during the negotiations and after the FTA is signed. They tell the public where negotiations are being held, and which topics are being negotiated. Afterwards they explain the progress and achievements they made, or failed to make. This transparency begins when negotiations begin. Actually it begins before negotiations begin. The scope of the FTA and its main framework is also made known.
Transparent consultations have advantages. They reduce recriminations against the government, for springing surprises on the public. They increase policy predictability. Domestic and foreign trade and economic agreements are made public once consultations have been concluded. Springing the results on the public all at once catches people by surprise. It provokes as much controversy as secret negotiations. It is more vulnerable to charges of "un-democratic," Legislative oversight is not the only way to honor democracy.
Furthermore, transparency allows affected industries and interested parties to express their views. Currently views are sought only from a handful of industries via small scale inquiries that lack breadth and depth. They are not conducted according to the Administrative Procedure Act as it pertains to public hearings. The industries queried may not need protection. Departments not queried many be the ones most in need of relief. More importantly, transparency enables the public to understand the negotiation progress. It enables them to understand the achievements made along the way, and the obstacles encountered along the way. It subjects the negotiations to scrutiny under the bright light of day. It enables the public to understand the urgency of liberalization. Otherwise, high officials invariably set illusory economic goals. They invariably use unconvincing arguments to make us accept real world changes.
Our government's FTA provisions specify the need for transparency. Ironically, the FTA talks are almost completely lacking in transparency. The negotiation process must be made transparent. This does not mean the detailed arguments and bargaining chips used in the talks must be disclosed. It is absolutely unnecessary to undermine the negotiations. The two sides agreed to make their FTA negotiations public. Secrecy is unnecessary. Beijing has raised no obstacles. Outsiders can be apprised of the obstacles encountered during negotiations through many means. Even the agenda and number of consultations for sensitive cross-Strait agreements can be indirectly released to the media. If this can be achieved during cross-Strait consultations, it can be achieved during FTA consultations with other countries. Let us begin with the Taipei/Singapore FTA negotiations.