TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Sunday that the island needed to pass a contentious trade pact with China for the sake of its economy, and called on protesters who have occupied parliament in protest to respect democracy and leave.
Parliamentary approval of the pact would pave the way for greater economic integration between the two former geopolitical foes, by opening 80 of China's service sectors to Taiwan and 64 Taiwan sectors to China.
But the demonstrators who have taken over parliament and massed in the surrounding streets for the past five days fear the deal could further swell Beijing's economic influence over their proudly democratic island.
Speaking to reporters in Taipei, Mr Ma said that Taiwan would suffer economically if it did not sign the agreement with its biggest export destination, China.
"I tell you once again, with a responsible attitude, that this is completely for the sake of Taiwan's economic future," said Mr Ma, under whose rule since 2008 Taiwan has signed a series of landmark trade and economic agreements with China.
Mr Ma and his ruling Kuomintang Party have promoted the pact, which faces a final review in parliament on April 8, as necessary to maintain Taiwan's competitiveness and status as an export powerhouse.
They have called it a precondition for Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade deal among 12 countries, spearheaded by the United States.
Mr Ma said he understood the passion of the mostly young protesters, as "the country can only have a future if the youth care about the country and are brave enough to participate".
But he added that with their "illegal" occupation of parliament they were affecting the work of the government, and should withdraw.
"Are we not proud of Taiwan's democracy and rule of law?" Mr Ma said. "If there is no rule of law, democracy cannot be protected - this is the government's unswerving basic position."
Taiwan is a former dictatorship that made a peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s, and now boasts one of Asia's most freewheeling democracies. Fights in parliament are common and protests are almost a daily occurrence.
The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party has said it fears the pact will hurt small service companies and damage Taiwan's economy. But it lacks the numbers to block the bill's final passage.
Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the Communists took power on the mainland in 1949, though relations have warmed considerably since the China-friendly Ma won the presidency in 2008 and secured re-election in 2012.
China still regards Taiwan as a renegade province, to be regained by force if necessary, and many in Taiwan are wary of the warming ties Mr Ma's administration promotes.