Taiwan's Prez eyes trade agreement with US

TAIPEI: Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has voiced hopes of reaching a free-trade agreement with the United States following a decision by the island to allow more US beef imports, a report said Wednesday.

A free-trade pact could eventually result once Taiwan-US talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) resume, Ma said in an interview with The Journalist weekly magazine.

"We hope to resume the TIFA and if we succeed we might have a chance to negotiate with the US government on the free trade agreement," Ma said.

"We have removed a major obstacle between Taiwan and the United States," he said in reference to the easing of restrictions of beef on the bone and cow organs imports announced last week.

Ma did not give a timetable for the resumption of talks while local media said it could take place as early as the end of this year.

TIFA, a crucial communication channel on bilateral trade issues, was stalled in 2007 after Taiwan refused to allow US beef on the bone because of mad cow disease fears.

Beef affected by the disease is feared to cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a human variant of mad cow disease.

Taiwan's decision to relax curbs last week stoked controversy and was blasted by some politicians and activists for ignoring health risks.

Ma sought to appease the critics and stressed that his government "would not exchange the people's health for anything."

Observers say Washington may have used the beef issue as a bargaining chip in its talks with Taipei over the purchase of dozens of US-made F-16 fighter jets as well as a framework trade and investment agreement.

Taiwan banned all US beef imports in December 2003 after reports of mad cow disease on the island but it opened up to boneless beef imports in 2006 while keeping other offal restrictions in place.

Washington has remained a key ally and leading arms supplier to the island despite switching diplomatic recognition to China in 1979.