TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's president said Wednesday that relations with political rival China were moving forward despite widespread public opposition that crested with an occupation of parliament last year, and that he hopes to cooperate with Beijing on regional economic development.
When President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, his government accelerated efforts to ease icy relations with China by avoiding politics to instead discuss trade, investment and transportation links.
But Ma's engagement with China hit its strongest wave of resistance at home last year when tens of thousands of protesters occupied parliament and surrounding streets in Taipei to demand more oversight of relations with Beijing or a cancellation of any future agreements.
Popular opposition to Ma's China policy contributed to steep losses for his Nationalist Party in island-wide local elections in November, analysts said at the time.
"The reason the Nationalists lost the local elections last year actually had no direct relation to cross-Strait policies, but was mainly about domestic issues," Ma said at a news conference organized by the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents' Club, referring to China-Taiwan ties.
"Last year, cross-Strait relations hit some minor setbacks, but basically they are moving ahead on a course of peaceful development," he said.
After the protests, he noted, Beijing's top Taiwan policymaker visited the island in June and the two sides have continued to negotiate an agreement that could cut tariffs on thousands of imports, a boon to Taiwan's pillar industries, such as high-tech and machinery.
Ma must step down next year due to term limits. His party is expected to run a tough race for the January presidential election against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates a more cautious approach to China relations and picked up seven seats in the local polls last year.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces lost to Mao Zedong's Communists and set up a rival government on the island.
China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Before Ma took office, Beijing occasionally threatened the use of force if the island moved toward legal independence.
The two sides have signed 21 related agreements since 2008, helping to accelerate Taiwan's half-trillion-dollar economy. China is eager to parlay the economic talks into political dialogue that it hopes will unify the two sides.
Taiwan has applied to join a regional infrastructure investment bank that Beijing plans to launch. Ma said the bank might offer contracts benefiting local builders and project managers.
Taiwan also should go "all out" in efforts to participate in regional economic integration such as the Beijing-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Ma said. The partnership would merge 3 billion-plus people into a free trade area.
China was Taiwan's top trading partner last year, with imports and exports totaling $130 billion. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam were also among its top 10 trading partners, and Taiwan already has as a two-way trade pact with Singapore.
Joining regional trade groups may give the Nationalists a modest boost ahead of the election but will not improve Ma's approval rating, said Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. The rating has fallen as low as 9 percent.
"I don't want to sound pessimistic, but I think it's going to remain (low) until the end of his term," Liu said.