TAIPEI, Taiwan — Police in Taiwan fired high-pressure water cannons Monday on hundreds of demonstrators who broke into the country's Cabinet compound to protest the liberalization of trade with political rival China, handing the island president one of his worst crises in six years.
About 2,000 officers, including riot police, clashed for five hours with a student-led group that forced its way into a guarded government complex in central Taipei. But more than 1,000 remain camped out around Taiwan's parliament to stop passage of a deal with China, which has a much larger economy and claims the self-ruled island as its own.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who has built an international reputation on détente with China since taking office in 2008, inflamed protesters Sunday by defending the trade pact rather than offering concessions. Ma's party faces tough local elections this year and worries that a stalled China deal will hamper efforts to sign trade deals with other countries, or later with China.
The dispersal of protesters from the Cabinet compound also raised questions about whether riot police will march on a bigger group that has occupied Parliament since Tuesday, in turn spurring more action by protest groups backed by the island's main opposition party.
"This is Ma Ying-jeou's biggest crisis but not the last one," said Hsu Yung-ming, political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "The government miscalculated, and what they said Sunday morning just got the students fired up. They must have a dialogue with protesters face to face or this situation will never end."
Dogged by the Parliament sit-in that began when his ruling Nationalist Party bypassed opposition demands for a line-by-line review of the trade deal, Ma told a Sunday news conference it was natural for citizens to worry about local industries ahead of liberalizing trade. But he noted that mainland Chinese investors had already created 9,600 local jobs, and he urged protesters to leave.
Negotiators signed the pact in June to drop barriers on 80 service categories in China and 64 in Taiwan. Officials in Taipei have said the deal would modernize Taiwan's service sector by giving it more space to grow in China.
Protesters demanded that Ma apologize for his comments and that the trade deal be scrapped and redrawn — a hardening of their earlier demand for an item-by-item review in parliament.
As tens of thousands of people demonstrated around in Taiwan over the weekend, several hundred left Parliament for the nearby Cabinet offices and broke in after nightfall. Police sent by Taiwan's premier arrested 61 people before ousting all protesters by about 5 a.m.