Chinese envoy's visit to test Taiwan's Ma

AP News
Posted: Dec 18, 2009 9:42 AM

President Ma Ying-jeou's signature effort to boost ties with Beijing faces a key test next week when Taiwan's pro-independence opposition plans to take to the streets to protest the visit of a senior Chinese envoy.

Buoyed by a strong showing in local elections earlier this month, the Democratic Progressive Party says it will muster 100,000 supporters Sunday in the central city of Taichung ahead of Monday's arrival of Chen Yunlin, China's top Taiwan negotiator.

Chen's visit to Taipei a year ago led to violent confrontations between police and anti-China demonstrators.

Chen will be in Taichung this time to sign four new economic accords between the once bitter rivals, which split amid civil war in 1949, and ever since have eyed each other warily across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait.

Since taking office in May 2008, Ma has eased cross-strait tensions to their lowest level in 60 years, turning his back on his DPP predecessor's pro-independence policies amid a welter of business-boosting initiatives.

These include launching regular air and sea links between the sides and ending across-the-board restrictions on Chinese investments in Taiwan _ precursors, Ma says, to a partial Taiwan-China trade agreement meant to be signed next year.

Taiwan's powerful business community strongly favors Ma's approach, seeing it as necessary to prevent the island's economic marginalization amid growing trade ties between Beijing and neighboring Asian countries.

Washington also supports it enthusiastically. Despite shifting its China recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it remains Taiwan's most important foreign partner and fears being drawn into the armed conflict that Beijing threatens would follow any opposition move to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence. It sees Ma's policies as strongly reducing that possibility.

The DPP, however, believes the president's China-friendly push sets the stage for an eventual Chinese takeover of the island _ a charge Ma vehemently denies.

The DPP says Ma's trade deal _ formally known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement or ECFA _ will flood the island with cheap Chinese products, prompting massive job losses.

"We are holding protests partly because studies have shown Taiwan's unemployment rate will shoot up after the signing of the ECFA," party spokesman Tsai Chi-chang said.

As recently as five months ago, most of the Taiwanese public accepted Ma's argument that closer economic ties with China would aid Taiwanese prosperity _ even allowing for the global economic downturn.

But Ma's mishandling of the response to a devastating typhoon in August began to dent his popularity, as did a more recent miscue involving secret negotiations on the removal of a ban on some U.S. beef imports.

Earlier this month Ma's Nationalists bested the DPP by only two percentage points in local elections _ a far cry from the 17 point margin that Ma enjoyed over his DPP rival in the March 2008 presidential poll.

Now, even some of Ma's Nationalist allies fear that if he does not respond effectively to DPP doubts about growing China economic ties, his political problems could multiply.

"If we sign the ECFA and it goes awry, the party's chances in future elections will face serious threats," lawmaker Lo Shu-lei said.