TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan urgently needs a trade pact with China to save its $390 billion economy from pariah status, President Ma Ying-jeou said on Sunday in a historic debate as the opposition accused him of ignoring public fears.
The debate, a new step in Taiwan's democracy, is expected to sway public opinion towards an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) set to be signed with China in June. It featured biting dialogue, sideways glances and animated hand gestures.
"If we don't do this deal, what else can we do? The rest of Asia is forming alliances," Ma said, his voice rising, as he stood beside anti-China opposition Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.
"Should Taiwan remain locked away or open up?" he said. "As the rest of Asia builds alliances, we and North Korea will be eliminated and become Asia's orphaned birds."
Markets would welcome the deal to slash tariffs as the strongest link between export-reliant Taiwan and world economic powerhouse China, boosting $109 billion in annual two-way trade, after recent trade talks following six decades of hostilities.
The opposition says the deal would flood Taiwan with cheaper Chinese goods and could raise property prices. Ma's ruling party is seeking public approval for the pact before Nov. 27 local elections seen as a bellwether for the 2012 presidential race.
Ma's public opinion polls have dropped since mid-2009 over domestic flaps as Tsai's party has picked up seats in legislative by-elections. Ma's opponents are organising a voter referendum on the ECFA, which could also be stalled in the island's parliament.
Tsai said the trade deal, which Beijing hopes will show goodwill to Taiwan as it pursues reunification with the self-ruled island that it claims as its own, should raise alarms.
She accused Ma of being too bullish on the agreement and of brushing aside what she described as widespread fears.
"President Ma, this is not a romantic matter. It's something that's rife with many, many challenges," Tsai said.
Ma, who has brokered trade-related talks with China since he took office in 2008, accused the opposition of lacking an economy-saving alternative to the ECFA. Tsai said Ma should already have thought of one.
Tsai asked Ma when he could say which sectors were slated under the ECFA for tariff cuts. Ma offered a timeline but said trade would open step by step, not all at once.
Television pundits were split on who fared better, giving the island's colourful media talk shows and staunchly divided public plenty to talk about.
"People would like to see this become more routine, more regular," said Raymond Wu, mananging director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. (Editing by Paul Tait)