Taiwan parliament aims for vote on China trade pact

TAIPEI, August 17, 2010 (AFP) - Taiwan legislators were Tuesday set to vote on a controversial trade pact with China as anti-Beijing demonstrators rallied outside parliament, with some expressing their anger by taking off their clothes.

The lawmakers were discussing the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) article by article in preparation for a final vote on the crucial document -- by far Taiwan's most wide-ranging accord yet with mainland China.

With an absolute majority in parliament for the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party, there seemed to be little doubt that the ECFA would be passed, and the only question was when.

"Parliament is likely to have a vote on the ECFA today," an assistant to KMT legislator Lu Hsueh-chang told AFP.

He added that KMT legislators had originally been told to prepare themselves for a vote at 0900 GMT, but the schedule had been delayed as the debate was lasting longer than expected.

Negotiators from Taiwan and China met in June to sign the agreement, a major priority for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, who swept to power in 2008 on a vow to improve the island's economy through better ties with China.

"Ma Ying-jeou is selling out Taiwan" and "ECFA means more unemployment," were among the slogans chanted by the protesters outside parliament, reflecting common worries among supporters of the opposition.

A group of protesters stripped down to their underwear, saying their protest symbolised Taiwan losing everything to China.

The ECFA has been widely seen as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation between the former rivals, who split after the end of a civil war in 1949.

KMT politicians have hailed the pact, saying it will bolster the island's economy, but the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) and its allies claim that it will undermine Taiwan's de facto independence.

Although Taiwan and China have been governed separately for more than six decades, Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has vowed to get it back, by force if necessary.

The KMT holds 74 seats in Taiwan's 112-seat parliament and the DPP 33. The balance is held by small parties and independents.

Tung Chen-yuan, a China expert at Taipei's National Chengchi University, said the pact will benefit Taiwan rather than China, even though it may not help the island in the short term by as much as the government claims.

"It will bolster the confidence of investors -- both from here and abroad -- as they believe lots of business opportunities will emerge from the closer links between the two sides," he said.

Although the ECFA has been called a landmark agreement, observers have pointed out that it mainly offers a framework that has to be filled out by further, more difficult talks.

After the ECFA becomes effective, the two former rivals will begin negotiations on trade in goods and services, investment protection and trade-dispute settlement.

"Taipei has to open up its market to Beijing in future talks, but how it will open up, and the measures it will prepare to mitigate the impact, will be a test of its abilities to deal with Beijing," said Tung.