Top negotiators from the mainland and Taiwan made a breakthrough yesterday by announcing the plan to launch negotiations on the much-anticipated cross-Straits free-trade deal.
The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signifies a major effort on both sides to boost economic ties. Initiated by Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Kuomintang, it will help cut import tariffs and aims to normalize trade across the Straits.
The decision to launch negotiations was made during a two-hour meeting between Beijing's top envoy Chen Yunlin and his Taiwan counterpart Chiang Pin-kung.
Chen, president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), stressed yesterday that the potential deal "is purely an economic matter that will not touch upon politically sensitive issues."
The meeting with Chiang, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), was their fourth since June of last year. Chiang said the proposal will be a key issue in the next round of talks, expected to be held on the mainland in the first half of next year.
"Both sides agreed that negotiations for the deal should begin as soon as possible and will be conducted in a gradual way," said Chiang, who declined to give an exact timetable. "Such a complicated issue cannot be completed in a single stroke."
He stressed that the ECFA is necessary for jointly tackling the global economic recession and challenges of globalization.
Scant details about the possible deal were released yesterday. Covering trade in goods and services as well as investment, it is expected to pave the way to scrap Taipei's current restrictions on mainland investment and products.
Zheng Lizhong, Chen's deputy, said that in pushing for the deal, the mainland will "give full consideration to the scale of Taiwan's economy and market".
"We will try hard to strive for maximum benefits at minimum cost," he said.
The assurance was apparently aimed at easing critics who have expressed concern over the island's efforts to bridge ties with the mainland.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the meeting site, a massive drop from the tens of thousands who initially filled Taichung's streets when Chen arrived.
In their opening statements, the negotiators pointed out the benefits of closer cooperation.
"Peaceful development between the two sides is the overwhelming trend. No one can stand in its way," Chen said.
Since taking office in May of last year, Ma has eased tension across the Taiwan Straits by turning his back on predecessor Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence policies.
He has pushed a package of initiatives aiming to boost businesses, including regular air and sea links with the mainland and ending across-the-board restrictions on mainland investment in Taiwan.
But the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has opposed Ma's friendly policies towards the mainland.
The DPP says Ma's proposed trade deal will flood the island with cheap mainland products, prompting massive job losses.
Ma has "turned blind eye to the possibility that jobs will be lost" if he signs the agreement, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen told tens of thousands of pro-independence demonstrators who marched through Taichung's streets on Sunday, a day ahead of Chen's arrival.
Ma rejected that assertion, saying the deal is necessary to prevent Taiwan's economic marginalization amid growing commercial ties between Beijing and neighboring Asian countries.
Chen and Chiang also signed three agreements on labor cooperation in the fishing industry, cooperation in inspection and quarantine of farm produce, and cooperation in measuring of standards, inspection and certification.