TAICHUNG, Taiwan (AP) -- Negotiators from China and Taiwan signed three trade deals Tuesday amid protests from critics who fear the Taiwanese government's China-friendly policies are opening the door to eventual unification with the mainland.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party blasted President Ma Ying-jeou for negotiating with China in a way that flouts "democratic rules."
Top officials signed a trio of minor trade agreements and discussed a free-trade deal that has fired up Tsai and other critics of Ma's push to link the export-dependant island's economy ever closer to China's.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the hotel in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung where the meetings were taking place, albeit far fewer than when Chen first visited Taiwan for talks last year. Scores of police officers guarded barricades to prevent a reoccurrence of the violence that marred that initial meeting.
In her comments to the AP, Tsai honed in on Ma's unwillingness to keep Taiwanese fully informed of the free-trade deal negotiations, saying openness was important because the proposed deal would "change Taiwan politically, economically, as well as socially."
"The people here did not give the president a blank check," Tsai said. "He has to conduct business according to democratic rules here. Rule number one is of course transparency."
Little is known about the proposed free-trade deal -- formally known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement or ECFA -- except that it would reduce restrictions on trade between the two sides, save for some Chinese agricultural and labor exports.
In their statements Tuesday, lead negotiators dwelt on the benefits of closer cooperation for each.
"Peaceful development between the two sides is the overwhelming trend. No one can stand in its way," Chinese delegation leader Chen Yunlin said.
Since taking office in May 2008, Harvard-educated Ma has eased tensions across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait to their lowest level in 60 years, turning his back on predecessor Chen Shui-Bian's pro-independence policies. The sides split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing has made political unification with the island -- achieved by force if necessary -- the core of its Taiwan policy ever since.
Ma has said repeatedly that unification is not on the cards during his presidency -- if he's re-elected, his term would last until 2016 -- and most Taiwanese take him at his word. But some in his party favor union with the mainland, so many in the opposition fear that steps toward that end could still be taken while he is in office.
Since taking office in May of last year, Ma has pushed a raft of business-boosting initiatives, including regular air and sea links with the mainland and ending across-the-board restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwan.
He argues that a trade deal with China is necessary to prevent Taiwan's economic marginalization amid growing commercial ties between Beijing and neighboring Asian countries. The agreement is on track to be signed in the spring of 2010, with Ma's Nationalist Party's substantial legislative majority virtually assuring ratification.
Washington strongly supports Ma's approach. Despite withdrawing its formal diplomatic recognition of China from the Taipei government and shifting it to Beijing in 1979, it remains the most important foreign partner of democratic Taiwan. However, it fears being drawn into any armed conflict that Beijing threatens in response to moves to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence, and it sees Ma's policies as strongly reducing that possibility.
Speaking ahead of Chen on Tuesday, Taiwanese negotiator Chiang Pin-kung said Taiwan hoped for an increase in direct flights between the sides and for more mainland tourists visiting the island, whose numbers have fallen far short of expectations.
Agreements signed Tuesday concerned protections for Chinese fishermen working on Taiwanese boats, safety of agricultural products imported from China, and cooperation on industrial and commercial standards. A planned agreement on avoiding dual taxation was being postponed to allow more time to hammer out technical issues.
Delegates said a next round of talks to be held on the mainland in the first half of next year will tackle protection of intellectual property rights as well as ECFA.
Chinese delegate Zheng Lizhong said talks would continue to focus on purely commercial issues for the foreseeable future, sidestepping questions over unification or the Chinese military threat against Taiwan.
"We want to first produce visible results that benefit people's interests and that will help lay the groundwork for talking about these difficult political mattters," Zheng said.