London, 25 March 2004
The strait widens
Taiwan's voters send a signal to China
THERE is plenty that remains uncertain about last weekend's presidential election in Taiwan, including the result. As The Economist went to press, a debate was raging over whether to hold a recount. Unusually, it was the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, who was pushing for one, even though the declared result of the election on March 20th had him ahead by about 30,000 votes, a slim 0.2% of the 13m valid votes cast. The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) were suddenly stalling -- seeking, instead, to have the whole election declared invalid. Even more mysterious was the identity of the attacker who apparently shot and lightly wounded Mr Chen and his vice-president the day before the poll. Some uncharitable souls have suggested that this whole incident was staged, as a way of scaring up a sympathy vote. The biggest uncertainty of all is what the result means for the precarious balance between Taiwan, China and America.
One thing, though, is very clear. Even if the recount were to turf him out of the presidential palace, Mr Chen has strongly advanced his cause of Taiwanese independence. In the previous election, in 2000, Mr Chen won only because the KMT, who had monopolised power in Taiwan since they fled there from the mainland in 1949, were split; this time, they were back together. In the intervening four years, Mr Chen can hardly be said to have delivered impressive government: economic growth has been fitful, policymaking haphazard and relations between the presidency and parliament (dominated by the KMT) appalling. Yet he has seen his vote rise from 39% in 2000 to 50%, give or take.
The most logical explanation for this is Mr Chen's devotion to the eventual goal of Taiwanese independence, since this is what most clearly distinguishes him from his KMT rival, Lien Chan. But what might appear to a dispassionate observer as a reasonable aspiration is deeply controversial. China has repeatedly vowed to use force to prevent Taiwan actually declaring its independence, and to underline the point has amassed an arsenal of at least 500 missiles on its Taiwan-facing coast. Though he has often been branded as a dangerous maverick, Mr Chen has in reality been quite clever. Time and again, he has stepped up to China's red lines, before stepping slightly back again. Each time, the cause of Taiwanese independence is left marginally advanced. It is the politics of calibration, sometimes clumsy, sometimes deft, but proceeding always in the same direction.
The two referendums --one asking if Taiwan should strengthen its defences against China's missiles, the other on whether to start more talks with China --that took place at the same time as the election are a good example of this. Neither passed, because a KMT-sponsored boycott meant that less than the required 50% of all registered voters participated. But Mr Chen's purpose was simply to establish referendums as a political tool in Taiwan, one that China fears may one day be used either to win independence or to block reunification. In the event, 7.5m Taiwanese (out of a voting-age population of 16.5m) sent a message of anger to China over its missiles. What Mr Chen understands, but China does not, is that democracy and Taiwan's identity are intimately linked.
Mr Chen is able to act as he has, it must be said, because he calculates that America, which has pledged to help protect Taiwan, could never stand by while its ally was invaded. Whenever he provokes China, he naturally causes consternation in America, which would far rather not be put to the test. It should be remembered, however, that Mr Chen is talking only about the possibility of a peaceful and democratic act of self-determination. It is China that threatens resort to force.
An island divided
Still, while showing that the independence movement cannot simply be brushed aside, events in Taiwan also show that opinion on the island is polarised. Many of those who voted for Mr Lien do indeed regard Mr Chen as extremely dangerous -- a man who would risk the island's remarkable prosperity and the autonomy it already has in pursuit of his dream. And, while strong, the desire for formal independence in Taiwan falls short of overwhelming.
In this division lies another danger. Since the mid-1980s, when the late Chiang Ching-kuo started to reform his country's authoritarian politics, Taiwan has been a model for much of the rest of East Asia. It is also the only real democracy in the Chinese world. Enduring political paralysis would send a lamentable signal to would-be democrats elsewhere.