- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Lawmakers exchanged punches and threw garbage bins at each other Thursday in another raucous session in Taiwan‘s legislature after the speaker rejected an opposition bid to conduct a detailed debate on a contentious trade pact with China.

The Associated Press saw the scuffles erupt after Wang Jin-pyng of the ruling Nationalists turned down a bid by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to debate each clause of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement separately rather than to consider the pact as a whole.

Mr. Wang’s decision is almost certain to speed up the agreement’s passage, which is already guaranteed by the Nationalists’ heavy legislative majority.

The deal, which was signed last week in the Chinese city of Chongqing, is the jewel in the crown of President Ma Ying-jeou’s two-year effort to tighten the bonds between Taiwan‘s high-tech economy and China’s lucrative markets.

It is expected to go into effect in early 2011.

In addition to slashing tariffs on a wide range of items traded across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait, the pact formalizes mechanisms for dispute mediation and promises access for the sides to new sectors such as banking and insurance.

Mr. Ma says the agreement is necessary for Taiwan to avoid economic isolation amid the emergence of regional trading blocs, particularly after a free trade agreement between China and southeast Asian countries went into effect earlier this year.

The opposition rejects his argument, charging the pact will hurt the island’s economy by making it overly dependent on China and ultimately pave the way for political unification, its greatest fear.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949.

Thursday’s legislative session degenerated into turmoil almost from the moment it began. Lawmakers from the two sides pushed and shoved around the speaker’s dais, exchanging blows and throwing objects at each other, including garbage bins and tea cups.

At one point opposition lawmaker Su Chen-ching broke through a phalanx of Nationalists surrounding the dais in an apparent effort to get to Mr. Wang, but was quickly overwhelmed and thrown to the floor.

Thursday’s chaotic scenes recalled past legislative brawls in Taiwan, which began a gradual transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1987 and remains riven by passionate fighting between its two major political blocs.

In one celebrated incident in 2007, lawmakers exchanged punches, climbed on each other’s shoulders and jostled violently for position around the speaker’s dais over an electoral reform bill that is now largely forgotten.