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WASHINGTON (AP) Taiwan's president on Wednesday stuck by a trade pact with China that has sparked mass protests and a three-week occupation of the self-governing island's legislature building by students.

The protest, which has at times drawn hundreds of thousands of people, is the most serious challenge yet to Ma's policy of moving democratic Taiwan economically closer to China.

Speaking by webcast from Taipei, President Ma Ying-jeou told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the students will start leaving the assembly hall on Thursday.

He said there needs to be more public education on the benefits of the pact, which would allow Taiwanese and Chinese service companies like banks to open branches or shops within the other's boundaries.

China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has long sought to assert its control over the island, using military force if necessary. The United States has welcomed the easing of tension. It closely watches those developments across the Taiwan Strait as it is required by U.S. law to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs for its defense.

Since Taiwan reached a landmark economic cooperation agreement with China in 2010, Ma said, "there have always been some inexplicable fears of too much dependence on mainland China."

"This really is a good opportunity for Taiwan's services industry to expand itself by getting into the mainland market," he said, adding that China stood to benefit less from the new pact as Taiwan's services sector is "somewhat saturated."

But opponents say the pact would cost Taiwan tens of thousands of jobs because small businesses on the island will be unable to compete with cash-rich, mostly state-run Chinese companies.

It was signed by China and Taiwan last year but is awaiting ratification by Taiwan's Parliament. Amid the protests, Ma has given in to students' demands to increase scrutiny of future pacts signed with China.

While Ma's policy of economic engagement with China has reduced tension, it has intensified fears of dependence on the mainland.

Ma, however, said the services industry pact would demonstrate Taiwan's readiness to open its markets and further deregulate its economy. That would help its entrance into regional free trade pacts, and so help diversify Taiwan's trade so it was less reliant on China, which accounts for close to 40 percent of Taiwan's exports, he said.

Ma urged U.S. support for Taiwan's admission into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement currently under negotiation between 12 nations including the U.S. and Japan. He said Taiwan is also interested in joining the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.