Implications of the EU Debt Crisis for Taiwan-China relations

Taiwan’s presidential election is around the corner. Europe on the other hand, is suffering a terrible debt crisis. In my opinion, the European debt crisis has important implications for the increasing warmth of the cross-strait relations following Ma Ying-jeou’s election to power in 2008.

The biggest difference between the two main presidential candidates in Taiwan is an entirely different policy on cross-Strait relations. President Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) acclaims the “1992 consensus”, which refers to only “one China” with different interpretations. Having created a sort of gray area based on the doctrines of the “new three Noes” — no unification, no independence and no use of force — Ma strives diligently to a pledge maintaining the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait. With the denial of the“1992 consensus”, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, instead, advocates a “Taiwan consensus” to build a society based on a democratic procedure and to prioritize the opinions of the Taiwanese people.

Pan-blue supporters worry that Tsai Ing-wen will give up the “1992 consensus” if she is elected. They worry that this decision will be followed by an instant downturn in cross-Strait trade and deterioration in the rapprochement that has been operating quite smoothly on the base of “1992 consensus” and regress to a zero-sum scenario. Cross-Strait trade has elevated the historical apex since Ma’s took over the presidential office. The Chinese market has occupied 40% of the Taiwanese export market according to the ministry of Economics of Taiwan government. With high dependence on China’s market, Taiwan seems to have entered the road of no return, similar to the economic integration of EU states. Whenever one member runs into a financial problem, all members suffer. As the situation appears to be coming to a head, there are two issues which we should keep an eye on:

Who will be on a knife’s edge-Taiwan or China?

Weaker European countries submit their sovereignty to the stronger ones, as Italy did due to its domestic financial turmoil, by accepting the bailout package from EU. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconio was forced to resign by the pressure of European debit crisis and was replaced by Mario Monti, a former member of the European Commission. Greece’s Prime Minister George Panandreou resigned due to the same turmoil. It leaves no doubt which nation-states cede their sovereignty to supranational organizations. On the same page, once Taiwan has become weaker impacted by the tide of economic recession, it could degenerate into a situation where Taiwan’s sovereignty will be easily trampled upon by China.

Lack of identity

In addition to the threat of losses on sovereignty, Taiwan will likely face the risk of losing its autonomy, as happened in the process of European integration. However, Taiwan and China have different political regimes and social systems. If Ma wins the election, the Chinese might want to raise the pressure to promote the level of cross-strait discussions and agreements into the political sphere. Without a mutual collective identity, Taiwan’s government may be cautiously aware of not jeopardizing its economic developments.

The European debt crisis has brought problems that many analysts say will require a fundamental change in the way the European Union operates. While Ma touted the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, there has been less attention paid to trade with the US and EU markets. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as the old proverb goes.

In the final stage of the election, voters need to focus not solely on the vain debates of “1992 consensus” or “Taiwan consensus”, but to consider who can build a solid foundation for a better economy and democratic regime. That is the first priority.

Lan-shu Tseng is a doctoral student in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham