TAIPEI, Taiwan - President Ma Ying-jeou said yesterday that Taiwan is far behind South Korea and Singapore in the signing of free trade agreements, but by completing the cross-strait trade in services and goods agreements, Taiwan can get much closer to catching up, given that mainland China is Taiwan's largest trading partner.
Ma, who doubles as Kuomintang (KMT) chairman, made the comments during the ruling party's weekly Central Standing Committee meeting in which National Development Council Minister Kuan Chung-ming gave a report on the nation's economic circumstances in comparison with other countries.
After hearing Kuan's report, Ma said that although Taiwan signed free trade agreements with other countries prior to 2008, the year the KMT returned to power, none of these countries were Taiwan's major trading partners, accounting for only 0.15 per cent of the island's trade.
The president added that after he took office, the administration began exploring FTAs with the island's major trading partners, which has gradually led to concrete results.
However, compared to South Korea and Singapore, Taiwan is still lagging far behind, and it will take time before the island can catch up, Ma said.
The first step would be completing the trade in services and goods agreements with mainland China, the president said. "Once this is accomplished, we will have moved much closer to catching up."
But whenever Taiwan discusses trade with mainland China, it becomes a sensitive topic, Ma said. "As if trading with (mainland China) equates to betraying Taiwan. As if trading with (mainland China) equates to sacrificing sovereignty."
When the KMT proposed direct flights between the two sides of the strait, pan-green lawmakers claimed that mainland Chinese jet fighters would soon follow on the heels of commercial aircraft, Ma said.
It has been five years, Ma said, asking rhetorically where the jet fighters were.
Every time mainland China is brought up, things are blown out of proportion, Ma said.
"We're not saying that we shouldn't be cautious," the president said, adding that Taiwan and mainland China should try to understand each other and build trust in order to solve problems.
Hopefully people will understand that the nation is in a difficult position, and Taiwan needs to leverage its advantages to get past its economic predicament, the president said.
Although the country is facing considerable challenges, it can catch up with its trading partners as long as its moves in the right direction, Ma said, adding that Taiwan has good qualities, and that it must not belittle itself.
In terms of GDP (nominal) per capita, between 2008 and 2013 Taiwan ranked second among the Four Asian Tigers, but if purchasing power parity is taken into account, Taiwan took first place in the same period of time, the president said.