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June 23, 2017

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China pact protest may create doubt for trading partners: ex-AIT head

WASHINGTON -- The recent upheaval in Taiwan over the trade-in-services agreement with China could sow doubts among Taiwan's trade partners, a former head of U.S. policy toward Taiwan cautioned Wednesday.

"It's important for Taiwan to reassure other trading partners that the commitments that its negotiators made during negotiations can actually be ratified within Taiwan's domestic political system," said Richard Bush, former chairman and managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the U.S. agency in charge of Taiwan affairs, between 1997 and 2002.

Speaking after a seminar on the Taiwan Relations Act, the director of Washington-based Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies said there may be some doubts about Taiwan's willingness to commit to pacts it signs after the massive student protest that started mid-March.

Dubbed the Sunflower Movement, the student protest reflected a general fear of Taiwan's increased economic engagement with China, he said, and the Taiwanese people now have some tough choices to make if they want to avoid marginalization in the global economy.

He also expressed concern over the methods employed by the student protesters, who occupied the Legislative Yuan from March 18 to April 10, largely grinding lawmaking activities to a halt.

The view among mainstream scholars is concern about what such a movement means to Taiwan's democratic institutions, he said.

Douglas Paal, a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which organized the seminar, said he believes the U.S. government does not welcome the disruption of the Legislative Yuan's operations.

"Any threat to Taiwan's institutionalized democracy should be undertaken very, very carefully," said Paal, who served as director of the AIT's Taipei office from 2002 to 2006.

Paal said Taiwan has a competitive advantage in the service sector and needs to penetrate the Chinese market if it wants to spur economic growth and create more jobs.

Taiwan is well positioned to maintain dominance in the industry, but China may be able to catch up and surpass Taiwan if no action is taken, he cautioned.

The issues surrounding the service trade agreement should be discussed on a realistic and economic basis instead of a political one, he said.

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