Over protest, Taiwan moves toward free trade with China

By Jane Rickards
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TAICHUNG, TAIWAN -- Taiwan and China signed a series of business accords on Tuesday, bringing them closer to economic integration amid vociferous protests here from critics who fear that the move will eventually lead to unification with the Chinese mainland.

Beijing's top negotiator for Taiwan, Chen Yunlin, signed three technical accords with his Taiwanese counterpart, Chiang Pin-kung, in the central city of Taichung. They also said agreements on free trade and intellectual property rights would be negotiated in talks slated for the first half of next year.

"Through accumulated experience, exchange and cooperation, we will broaden cross-strait bilateral talks to bring all kinds of benefits to the people," Chiang said. "This will allow the peaceful development of cross-strait relations to march forward."

The agreements came after a mass protest Sunday organized by the independence-leaning opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which said 100,000 people took part, although the police estimated the figure at 30,000.

Since taking office in May 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has sought to ease tensions with China, which were the hallmark of the eight-year administration of his predecessor, pro-independence Chen Shui-bian. The new president's government has signed several business agreements with Beijing, including ones for the first regular direct cross-strait flights in half a century.

The United States supports his approach.

Ma, who was educated at Harvard University, is in a hurry to sign the proposed outline for a free-trade pact, saying it is vital for preventing export-dependent Taiwan's economic marginalization once a free-trade agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian nations takes force next year.

But critics fear the agreement is a Chinese tool for inducing Taiwan to unify with the mainland.

The Democratic Progressive Party, which saw a boost in popularity in recent local elections, has complained that the government is negotiating the pact secretly and that it will bring an influx of cheap Chinese goods and cause thousands of job losses.

Although only vague details about the trade agreement have been made public, it is one of the cornerstones of Ma's China policies.

The proposed pact includes cuts of 5 to 15 percent on tariffs for China-bound Taiwanese exports and other agreements regulating trade.

Tuesday's protests were markedly smaller than the ones during a November 2008 visit from Chen, which was the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a Chinese official in half a century.

Analysts say Beijing is keen to hand Taiwan economic sweeteners to boost the chances of China-friendly Ma getting reelected in 2012. Ma, for his part, says he is eager to boost the island's business but has said there will be no unification during his presidency and has consistently ruled out previous offers of political talks.

Rickards is a special correspondent.

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