Taiwan president says China trade deal skirts political hazards

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's president Thursday defended his landmark trade deal with China against claims that it would lead to a Beijing takeover, as the opposition girded for elections that could determine the fate of the ambitious China opening.

The Economic Framework and Cooperation Agreement, signed Tuesday in the Chinese city of Chongqing, is the most significant step to date in Ma's signature program of improving relations with Beijing.

It promises greater economic convergence between the once-bitter foes and raises prospects for closer political bonds across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer)- wide Taiwan Strait, long a regional flash point.

While lauded by both Beijing and Washington — like Ma, they see the agreement as dampening the chances for conflict across the narrow waterway — Taiwan's pro-independence opposition has blasted it as part of a Chinese effort to bring the island back under its control 60 years after they split amid civil war.

Ma appeared eager to calm those fears Thursday when he addressed a packed news conference in Taipei.

"We understood that the mainland must have political considerations, political motives" in signing the trade agreement, he said. "But the mainland side has indicated there is no rush to move into the political issues. We hope to gain enough time so people across the Taiwan Strait can have enough economic, cultural or other exchanges to better understand each other."

Ma is risking the future of his presidency — and the fate of his China opening — on the deal.

He maintains that democratic Taiwan needs the agreement to prevent its economic marginalization amid the emergence of regional trading blocs, including a Free Trade Agreement between China and Southeast Asian countries that went into effect earlier this year.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party disagrees. Besides insisting it has a big political downside, the DPP says its economic benefits are much overblown.

"Taiwan's economy will go through structural changes including a bigger gap between the rich and the poor and over-dependence on Chinese industries," party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen said Wednesday. "China will use its increased economic clout to enlarge its interference in Taiwan's politics and media."

Polls show that a narrow majority of Taiwanese support the trade deal because they believe that it will improve the island's economy, reducing tariffs on Taiwanese exports to the mainland and giving a boost to its financial service industries. Taiwan's exports to China currently run at about $80 billion annually.

Still, the DPP believes the deal provides it a useful opening to leverage the overwhelming opposition of Taiwan's 23 million people to political union with China, the goal of Beijing's Taiwan policy for the past 60 years.

The deal's first political test comes in November, when Taiwanese go to the polls to elect mayors in five large constituencies.

DPP victories in at least three of those contests could give the party a big advantage in the 2012 presidential poll, in which Ma is widely expected to run.

A Ma defeat in 2012 would put significant pressure on the Chinese leadership to reevaluate its patient approach to Taiwan, and almost certainly lead to a significant uptick in regional tensions.

That would be bad news for the United States, which sees Ma's China engagement program as an antidote to a renewed conflict in the region.

Political scientist Paul Chu of Taipei's National Taiwan Normal University said that Ma's gamble with the trade deal, or ECFA, would likely pay off, though not immediately.

"ECFA will help with President Ma Ying-jeou's re-election," he said. "But ECFA's positive effects will not be very clear in the short run, say in three or five months, so it will have both a positive and negative impact on (Ma's) Nationalist Party in the year-end elections."