- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BEIJING | China and Taiwan signed a tariff-slashing trade pact Tuesday that boosts economic ties and further eases political tensions six decades after the rivals split amid civil war.

Beijing hopes the deal, signed live on state television, can lead to political accommodation. Taiwan is looking for the tighter economic links to keep the island from being marginalized as China’s global clout grows.

The pact will end tariffs on hundreds of products traded across the strait and allow Taiwanese firms access to 11 service sectors on the mainland, including banking, accounting, insurance and hospitals. It should boost bilateral trade already totaling about $110 billion a year: some $80 billion in goods flowing to China, and $30 billion to Taiwan.

The deal was signed in the southern Chinese city of Chongqing, a venue with an evocative history. Communist leader Mao Zedong and Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek tried to negotiate a truce there after World War II, but failed. The two sides then resumed the civil war that resulted in Chiang’s government being driven from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949.

For decades, relations across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait have been strained. They remain a potential military flash point. China has 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets and, although Taiwan has cut its defense budget as a proportion of gross domestic product in the past two years, it retains a well-equipped air force as a deterrent.

“This is a critical moment in the development of long-term relations. We should seize the opportunity to work together and build mutual trust,” Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of Taiwan’s semiofficial Straits Exchange Foundation, said ahead of the signing.

His Beijing counterpart, Chen Yunlin, called it an agreement of “equal consultation and mutual benefits.”

Formally known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, the pact marks a political victory for both governments. Chinese President Hu Jintao has sought to move beyond the threatening rhetoric that long characterized Beijing’s response to Taiwan’s refusal to unify with the mainland. His government has talked of ending the state of hostility with Taiwan and negotiating a peace treaty.

For Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the deal is the high point in the rapprochement that he has engineered since his election two years ago on a platform to reduce tensions and strengthen economic ties. But Mr. Ma is under pressure to prove his strategy is working to Taiwan’s boisterous democracy and a divided public that is skeptical about Beijing’s intentions.

Notwithstanding years of political tension, Taiwanese businesses are already some of the most eager investors in China, having poured at least $83 billion into the mainland over the past two decades. About 40,000 Taiwanese companies now operate here.

Mr. Ma’s government said the deal will keep Taiwanese businesses competitive with those of other Southeast Asian countries, whose free-trade agreement with China came into force Jan. 1.

The agreement is expected to be approved easily by Taiwan’s legislature next month, because Mr. Ma’s ruling Nationalist Party holds the majority of the seats.



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