In a bad omen to start the new decade, Taiwan's relations with its top informal ally, the United States, are tipped to suffer due to a row over beef imports. While economic retaliation from the US is almost certain, Washington is also expected to give a poor appraisal of the leadership ability of President Ma Ying-jeou, whose flip-flopping on US beef import policy has come under sharp scrutiny. Analysts noted that the impact would be limited to the trade arena because it was unlikely the US would let go of its security commitments and allow the island to lean further towards the mainland. The row started with the Ma government's signing of a protocol with the US in late October to lift a six-year ban on the import of US beef parts, a persistent demand Washington has made through its trade, agriculture and foreign departments. Taiwan first imposed the ban on all US beef in December 2003 after reports that several US cows had mad cow disease (BSE), said to cause the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. But under pressure from the US, it opened its markets to boneless US beef three years later, although it kept the ban on beef on the bone and offal. The October 22 protocol, however, allows not only the import of beef on the bone and beef from cattle under 30 months old, but also skulls, brains, eyes, spines, minced beef and other offal. But the agreement immediately triggered an outcry from Taiwanese consumers, who feared the resumption of the imports would endanger public health and hurt local agriculture. In November, thousands of people, led by consumer rights groups, demonstrated outside the Presidential Office, demanding that the Ma government retract the protocol and reopen talks with the US. The removal of the ban was successfully used by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party as a campaign tactic in local elections earlier this month to criticise the Ma government for trampling on public life by allowing imports of the controversial US beef products. Lawmakers of both the KMT and DPP were also upset at the lack of transparency in the way the Ma government negotiated the deal with the US. They were also unhappy over the government's failure to respect a 2006 resolution passed by the legislature that required public health and other related authorities to get prior approval from the law-making body for imports of US beef products. Chiang Huang-chih, professor of law at National Taiwan University, noted that the protocol was unfair to Taiwan. 'One of the terms makes Taiwan abandon all its rights to protect its people immediately after fresh reports of a BSE outbreak,' he said. Taiwan can only ban US beef imports after the US undergoes intensive investigations and sends the investigation results to the World Organisation for Animal Health for final approval. National Security Council Secretary General Su Chi, who was behind the negotiations, refused to reopen talks with the US. 'It is impossible to reopen talks as it would seriously damage Taiwan's international reputation and credibility, and no more countries would be willing to talk with Taiwan in the future,' he said last month. On Tuesday, furious KMT and DPP lawmakers reached an agreement to revise the Food Sanitation Act to put a stop to imports. The decision prompted the US to issue a strongly worded statement on Wednesday, saying the amendment, if passed, 'would represent a new barrier to US beef exports to Taiwan and would constitute a unilateral abrogation of a bilateral agreement concluded in good faith by the US with Taiwan'. The hint of retaliation forced the Ma government to decide to send a delegation to the US in mid-January to seek understanding and repair the damage. 'It is unlikely the US would stop selling arms to Taiwan or change its Taiwan Relations Act and give up its security commitment for Taiwan,' said US expert Yen Chen-shen of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University.