Taiwan President Ma's pro-China drive hits trouble as Taiwanese students come of age

TAIPEI (AFP) - The last time Taiwanese students mobilised en masse, they brought about an end to decades of martial rule. Now, they are scenting victory in a new battle for the island's soul as they repel government plans to embrace China ever closer.

For both sides, the debate about strengthening trade ties with the giant mainland is an existential one. President Ma Ying-jeou says that without his mooted pact in services, the economy of heavily export-reliant Taiwan risks sliding into irrelevancy.

For the students, however, Mr Ma is selling their homeland cheaply to a bullying neighbour that still regards Taiwan as its rightful property. After ending a three-week occupation of parliament late Thursday, they threatened more "comprehensive" action unless their demands are met.

"Whatever the fate of the agreement, by any standard, the movement itself is already a setback to Ma's cross-strait policies," political scientist George Tsai of the Chinese University in Taipei told AFP.

"From now on, any government measures relating to the Chinese mainland are set to be scrutinised and held up to the strictest standards," he said.

The president, from the nationalist Kuomintang party, has overseen years of warming relations as he seeks to plug Taiwan into the rapid growth that has made China the world's second-largest economy.

But just two years into his second and final term, Mr Ma has already become a "lame duck", the Taipei-based China Times said in an editorial Friday.

"The student movement for sure will cost the Kuomintang millions of votes from first-time voters," when Taiwan next goes to the polls in 2016, it said.

Taiwan-China trade has progressed since both sides adopted a tariff-cutting "Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement" in 2010, the most significant pact since they split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

Mr Ma says that after the ECFA, the pact in services trade signed last year would add another half a billion dollars to Taiwan's economy and create around 12,000 jobs. Progress economically could even lead to a historic political meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, he suggests.

The Taiwan president this week accused protesters of exploiting "inexplicable fear" of trade with the mainland and said the sit-in of parliament had alarmed other trading partners, as the island seeks to broaden its commercial reach at a time of deepening economic integration in Asia.

"This is a challenge we cannot dodge," said Wu Chung-shu, president of the Chung-hua Institute for Economic Research.

But for the protesters, the 2010 agreement has failed to deliver on Mr Ma's promises, and closer trade is not worth the risk of subordinating self-governing Taiwan to China, which continues to assert sovereignty over the island and refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve its ends.

"We are not anti-China, nor do we oppose doing business with China," Justin Wu, a student leader, told AFP.

"But we do oppose putting our whole basket of eggs on China when it has never relinquished its ambition (of reunification)," he said.

The students at parliament bore sunflowers as an emblem of their protest.

It was a conscious echo of the wild lilies that symbolised an earlier student movement in 1990, which triggered the demise of the Kuomintang's long period of strongman rule started by Chiang Kai-shek.

There were violent clashes on March 23 when baton-wielding police turned water cannon on protesters who had stormed the government headquarters close to the parliament complex. A week later, tens of thousands took to Taipei's streets to demand the scrapping of the services pact.

Parliamentary Speaker Wang Jin-pyng pledged not to preside over further debate on the pact until legislation promising stronger oversight of such agreements is introduced, conceding to a key demand of the protest movement.

Given Mr Wang's pledge, and competing amendments in parliament, Kuomintang legislators acknowledge that the administration's drive to ratify the services pact by June looks in jeopardy.

China itself has stayed relatively muted throughout the protests, but commentaries in state media have warned that the student movement could be exploited by Taiwanese opposition politicians keen on a formal divorce from Beijing.

"The experiences and lessons over the past two decades indicate there is no future for the path of Taiwan independence, and each article of the service trade pact stands up to scrutiny," Chu Jingtao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in Friday's Global Times newspaper.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.