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Taiwan's president said Sunday he will guard Taiwan's sovereignty when signing a major China trade deal to bolster the island's economy, while the opposition charged the pact will be harmful politically and economically.
The heated exchange in a televised debate between President Ma Ying-jeou and main opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen came as Taiwanese people are split over how the China trade pact will affect Taiwan.
Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing continues to claim the island as part of its territory.
The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement is the jewel in the crown of Ma's aggressive efforts to engage China economically and boost Taiwan's economy. Taiwan officials have said the agreement will allow the free flow of many goods and services except for Chinese agricultural produce as a concession to Taiwanese farmers.
Ma has said repeatedly that he wants to close the deal by June. After the pact is signed, it must be approved by the legislature.
In Sunday's debate, Ma said the pact is aimed to help Taiwan avoid being marginalized after a wide-ranging free trade agreement between China and major southeast Asian countries took effect this year. He said the deal will further leverage Taiwan's economy with China's rising economic clout.
The agreement will "reduce tariff on Taiwanese exports to the mainland ... and protect Taiwanese investment and intellectual property rights on the mainland," Ma said. "We will protect Taiwan's sovereignty when we negotiate agreement details" with Beijing.
Ma added the pact will increase Taiwanese exports to China and lower the jobless rate on the island.
However, Tsai dismissed Ma's claim and said the pact will force Taiwan to open up for cheap Chinese exports eventually and some Taiwanese industries will bear the brunt of the mainland trade invasion. As an alternative, Tsai said, Taiwan should bolster economic ties and conduct trade talks with China under the World Trade Organization framework, which would offer the island more trade protections in negotiations with the mainland.
"The working class, farmers and people who earn fixed salaries will suffer the most from economic changes caused by ECFA," Tsai said. "The government is reducing the time and space for Taiwan to make adjustments for ECFA ... this will make Taiwan lose its independence in cross-strait relations and become a Chinese parasite."
While Ma acknowledged Tsai's claim that the China pact will increase the financial gap between the rich and the poor, he said his government will redress the issue through tax and social welfare programs.