Taiwan: Fight neo-liberal trade pacts and TPP

A mass movement must be built based on the working class

James Langdon, CWI Taiwan

The Ma government in Taiwan is desperately trying to lock in discussions with China over a trade agreement in goods. The urgency behind their attempts is shining a spotlight on the many anti-worker trade agreements in store for our region.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs announced it aims to conclude negotiations on the trade agreement in goods by the middle of the year. The elephant in the room, however, is the trade agreement in services, which is still stalled in the Executive Yuan due to the pressure of public opposition.

Polls found that nearly half of Taiwanese people were suspicious of the looming trade agreement in services. Their suspicions – that the agreement would lead to a fall in their living conditions – are absolutely correct. Sensing an opportunity, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which hopes to dislodge the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in  2016, has been trying to take advantage of the anti-trade agreement mood to gain popularity.

Late last year the government also announced it was going to entrench in law the Free Economic Pilot Zones (FEPZ) in Suao, Keelung, Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung Ports and Taoyuan Aerotropolis. It boasted of massive growth in these zones, and argued that the only future for Taiwan is the expansion of neo-liberal measures across the island.

Vice-President Wu Den-yih implored Taiwanese people to be ‘open-minded’ and accept the new reality of the Free Economic Pilot Zones and trade agreements like the services pact. In the midst of growing opposition to these neo-liberal measures he asked people to work together to achieve the deregulation that is necessary.

Premier Jiang Yi-Huah echoed these sentiments, arguing Taiwan’s future lies in ending protective measures and opening more sectors to foreign competition. Taiwan’s economic woes, he claimed, are not an accident but a direct result of Taiwan’s failure to accept market liberalisation as readily as its neighbours.

The reality is that ordinary people are not seeing the benefits of the growth boasted about last year as a result of the FEPZ. What they are catching a glimpse of in these zones is a wild deregulated future for workers, where wages and conditions are pushed back as a matter of course.

While the stalling of the services agreement in the Executive Yuan is welcome but temporary delay, it points to a larger possibility. If this is what can be achieved through a few small protests and some legalistic tricks, imagine what could be achieved if a mass movement were built against the sort of anti-worker agreements that are becoming the norm in the Asia-Pacific region.

Warning for TPP

Taiwanese people are not the only ones in the region facing a bleak neoliberal future. Every national government and ruling class has joined the deregulation race.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated is a further example of what is to come if a mass movement for change is not built. This agreement, which involves at least nine countries including the US, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Japan, extends far beyond the mere removal of tariffs. It seeks to force open the public sector and allow private profit interests to gain a stronger foothold in government procurement meaning billions of dollars of new markets for the financial speculators. It limits a government’s ability to offer subsidies for weaker sectors of the economy, which the neo-liberal economists attack as “trade distortions”.  In short it adds up to more market, less government and public sector control.

The TPP includes a proposal to set up a tribunal that regulates disputes between companies and countries. If a country’s laws are undermining a company’s profits it could potentially be sued. Workers’ rights legislation would make any signatory a target for litigation. This is a move to lock neoliberalism into enforceable international law.

Just like the unpopular trade agreement in services between Taiwan and mainland China, ordinary workers in the region are deeply suspicious of the TPP. In New Zealand 64 percent of people are against the proposed pact. In Australia an incredible 90 percent of people believe they should be involved in making decisions about the nation’s involvement in the TPP. It is clear that this agreement will not only undermine current wages and conditions, but give the capitalists, financial speculators and national governments yet another weapon to use against workers and poor farmers in the future.

TPP – a political bloc

The TPP negotiations still have a way to go, however. The ever-present rivalry in US-China relations is a major factor, and just like in the case of the stalled services pact, the respective governments involved in the TPP have domestic concerns to consider. The Obama administration is promoting the TPP as a clearly political bloc, to exclude and contain China, while of course denying this officially.

The TPP is the economic accompaniment to the military “pivot to Asia” launched by the US in 2011 to re-establish its power in the region with the help of old and new alliances with the likes of Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia. All of these states have massive trade and investment ties with China but also want to counterbalance the Chinese regime’s growing dominance in Asia, and its ability to dictate the economic terms.

Mass opposition can put an end to these anti-worker trade agreements in our region and this needs to be linked to opposition to the arms race and increasing nationalism, used to divide the masses while the capitalists ‘unite’ to scoop up more profits. Every regional government is playing the same game; calling for defence of “national interests” while allowing the plunder of public resources by the capitalist speculators at home and abroad. A majority of people may be suspicious of these rotten manoeuvres by the international capitalists, but this suspicion has not yet developed into the sort of movement that is required.

Despite the fact that the trade agreement in services and the TPP will so drastically undermine workers’ rights, trade unions have either been silent on these issues or expressed only token opposition. We are witnessing the largest scale legally-enforceable ‘race to the bottom’ in labour rights the world has ever seen, but general silence from the ‘workers’ leaders.’

It is clear that we urgently need to build a political alternative to the big business parties – the DPP included – who are behind these deals. Unions and community organisations need to combine to build this alternative, but this battle must be waged on an international scale. The ruling classes of countries in the region are cooperating extremely well to undermine working people’s living conditions. It is imperative that working people across the region work together to kill the services trade agreement and the TPP permanently, and fight for an end to the system that legally mandates bosses’ profits but forces ordinary people to fight for scraps.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in East Asia, including the CWI in Taiwan, will seek to play an active role in the movements against neo-liberal trade pacts and the TPP. We stand for an international socialist alternative to plan the economy and trade to meet the needs of society rather than profit.