At noon on November 8, President Ma Ying-jeou attended a reception at the Taipei Guest House to celebrate the signing of the Agreement between Singapore and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Partnership (ASTEP). The president stressed that this accord marks a major step toward greater trade liberalization. The government will continue to negotiate and sign free trade agreements and economic cooperation agreements with other major trading partners to hasten Taiwan's participation in regional economic integration, he said.
In remarks, the president first commented that after Taiwan and mainland China signed the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) on June 29, 2010, Singapore in early August of that year expressed its willingness to sign an economic cooperation agreement with Taiwan. After two and a half years of negotiations, the two sides on November 7 signed the ASTEP, he said. The president praised the efforts made by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other government agencies that took part in the negotiations. He also thanked the Singapore government for its support and assistance.
The president commented that Singapore is the first country that sought to sign an economic cooperation agreement with Taiwan. The two sides formally began negotiations in May 2011, he said, pointing out that in September of the same year Taiwan and Japan signed the Taiwan-Japan Bilateral Investment Arrangement. Furthermore, in March of this year Taiwan and the United States resumed negotiations under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, and Taiwan and New Zealand in July signed the Agreement between New Zealand and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Cooperation (ANZTEC). President Ma noted that Taiwan signed five pacts with Japan on November 5 of this year, including the Taiwan-Japan Arrangement for Mutual Cooperation on Electronic Commerce, which shows that the ECFA has effectively encouraged other nations to sign free trade and economic cooperation agreements with Taiwan.
President Ma said that the signing of the ASTEP is extremely significant. While Singapore has a population of only five million people, its exports are double its GDP, while Taiwan's exports constitute 70% of GDP. This means Singapore is even more reliant on external trade, and has thus been a leader among Asian nations in actively pursuing the signing of free trade agreements, he stated. ASTEP, the president said, is a high-quality economic cooperation agreement, pointing out that Taiwan has pledged to eventually reduce its tariffs to zero on 99% of its export products, with tariffs on 83% of them to be abolished immediately. This constitutes an important step for Taiwan in its march toward trade liberalization, and shows Taiwan's sincere determination to liberalize its markets, reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers, and actively involve itself in regional economic integration, he commented.
On the topic of trade liberalization, President Ma further elaborated that 10 years ago Singapore had already signed six free trade agreements. For each US$100 worth of Singaporean exports, the president said, US$64 worth is covered under Singapore's free trade agreements, and the figure for South Korea is US$33. After Taiwan's signing of the ECFA, the figure for Taiwan stood at only US$4, he said, which means that Taiwan lags far behind its regional neighbors in this regard. While this situation will have improved with the signing of the ANZTEC with New Zealand and the ASTEP with Singapore, the president noted, Taiwan still has much work to do to catch up with the rest of the world and keep from being marginalized. Consequently, he expressed hope that the Legislative Yuan will quickly complete screening of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement and show the world that Taiwan's executive and legislative branches are on the same page regarding trade liberalization.
President Ma also mentioned that three years ago when working to sign the ECFA, he held a public debate on the issue with the head of the main opposition party, and stressed that the goals of using mainland China as a stepping stone to the world and using the world as a stepping stone into mainland China were not at cross purposes. The president noted that today Taiwan has signed economic cooperation agreements or similar accords with mainland China (its largest trading partner), Japan (its second largest trading partner), the United States (its third largest trading partner), and Singapore (its fifth largest trading partner). This proves that the ruling and opposition parties need not debate this issue, but rather should concentrate their energies on expanding economic cooperation between Taiwan and the rest of the region. This, he said, would enable Taiwan to quickly get in step with the rest of the world.
President Ma mentioned that 10 years ago when he served as mayor of Taipei City he was invited to attend the World Economic Forum in Singapore. At the time, ASEAN was in the process of pursuing an ASEAN 10 plus 3 free trade agreement with mainland China, Japan, and Korea, so he delivered an address entitled "Why Not 10 plus 4?" to express Taiwan's hope to participate in East Asian regional integration. Fast forward ten years to today, he noted, and we find that Taiwan and Singapore have signed the ASTEP, which shows that Taiwan's pursuit of trade liberalization is being realized. In the future, the government will continue to use a "building block" approach to negotiate free trade agreements and economic cooperation agreements with other major trading partners, thereby hastening Taiwan's participation in regional economic integration, remarked the president.