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Taiwan elections, Chinese puzzle

After Taiwan's presidential election, China can no longer assume most of the island's people wish to unite with the mainland. Beijing must decide how far to bend.

Friday, April 4, 2004

By Prof Richard Baum, Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA

The bitterly contested Taiwan presidential election last month has dashed -- perhaps forever -- Beijing's dream of a unified "One China."

For the first time, an absolute majority of Taiwan's voters cast ballots for an avowedly pro-independence candidate, incumbent President Chen Shui-bian. With Chen's re-election, China's leaders can no longer credibly reassure themselves that a clear majority of Taiwanese, in their heart of hearts, yearn to rejoin their compatriots on the Chinese mainland.

As a result, relations between Taiwan and the mainland -- edgy ever since Chiang Kai-shek moved his defeated "Republic of China" to Taiwan in 1949 -- have entered an era of heightened uncertainty, fraught with potential danger.

Although Chen's March 20 victory was by the narrowest of margins -- 29,000 votes out of 13 million cast -- his 50.1 percent share represented a dramatic increase over the 39 percent he garnered four years earlier, when he overcame a divided opposition.

As a minority president, Chen had begun his first term on a cautious note, pledging to refrain from taking any precipitous steps to promote Taiwan's independence -- steps that might provoke a military response from Beijing. With the approach of the 2004 election, however, Chen began throwing caution to the wind.

Promising a constitutional overhaul in 2006 that would, in effect, transform Taiwan into a sovereign, non-Chinese state, he further proposed an islandwide referendum, to be conducted in conjunction with the presidential vote, to express the Taiwanese people's opposition to Chinese efforts to deny Taiwan's international standing. Cautioned by President Bush to refrain from attempting any "unilateral" step "to change the status quo" in the Taiwan Strait, however, Chen eventually toned down his referendum.

On the eve of the March 20 balloting, most opinion surveys showed Chen losing to the so-called Pan Blue opposition, an electoral coalition of the two main parties he defeated in 2000. Headed by former Vice President Lien Chan, the Blue ticket was projected to win by a margin of two to five percentage points.

At the last minute, fate intervened to help Chen snatch victory. Less than 24 hours before the polls opened, a would-be assassin's bullet (or bullets) grazed the president and ricocheted off Vice President Annette Lu as they rode, unprotected, in a motorcade. The botched assassination attempt generated a wave of voter sympathy, erasing the opposition's lead and enabling Chen to squeak through.

Unwilling to concede defeat, angry Pan Blue supporters led massive demonstrations in front of Taipei's presidential palace. Implying that the shooting had been staged by Chen's supporters, Lien demanded a recount and even called for a new election. By last weekend, the two sides were edging to the brink of a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Intervention hints

Meanwhile, across the Strait, Chinese government officials employed shrill language, reminiscent of the Cold War, to warn that China would "not sit idly by" if conditions on Taiwan deteriorated into chaos.

A crisis was averted when cooler heads on both sides -- encouraged by U.S. officials from the quasi-governmental American Institute in Taiwan -- prevailed. Chen agreed in principle to a ballot recount and brought in a team of independent American forensics experts to investigate the shooting. In exchange, the Pan Blues gave up their call for a new election.

The apparent resolution of a constitutional crisis brought with it at least one unanticipated side benefit. Close elections, especially bitterly disputed ones, can test the durability of even the most well-established constitutional democracies (witness Florida's "hanging chad" crisis four years ago). In this instance, Taiwan's fledgling democratic institutions were strained to the breaking point. But in the end, they held fast. Bitter feelings remained, but the institutions themselves arguably emerged stronger than before.

As one of more than 50 Western observers invited to monitor the election, I was impressed by the fairness and transparency of the process. Even the post-election demonstrations, for all their extraordinary size and emotional intensity, were mostly peaceful and orderly, with people eventually dispersing voluntarily. And the sealing of thousands of ballot boxes, pending official recount, was carried out smoothly.

Although Chen's narrow victory has yet to be confirmed by official recount, most observers expect the outcome to remain unchanged. And in any event, there can be no disputing the long-term trend of increasing popular support for a distinctive Taiwanese national identity.

This leaves China's leaders in an uncomfortable fix. While repeating, for public consumption, their perennial one-China mantra -- "There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is a part of China" -- leaders of the People's Republic of China privately face the growing likelihood that they will have to either make good on their longstanding threat of military intervention, or swallow their pride and accept some measure of permanent Taiwanese separation.

Amid the general gloom of Beijing's election post-mortem, there was one small bright spot. To Beijing's visible relief, Chen's controversial referendums failed to clear the high bar required for passage. If adopted, one of the twin ballot measures would have explicitly affirmed the Taiwanese people's intention to acquire ballistic missile defenses to counteract several hundred offensive missiles arrayed along the Chinese coast.

The truth hurts

Beijing's policy-makers nevertheless must now confront the painful realization that their "carrots and sticks" policy of deterring Taiwan independence through unremitting diplomatic pressure, military threats and economic blandishments has failed to halt the rising tide of Taiwanese nationalism.

As the dust began to settle from the election, editorials in China's state-controlled media characterized Chen's victory as "illegitimate" and "fraudulent." Many Chinese scholars and think-tank analysts bemoaned the fading prospects for "peaceful reunification."

Claiming that Chen was "determined to be the founding father of a new nation by 2008," one prominent analyst wrote, "The question for China is where it will draw the line, and how it will act to stop him." Another Chinese media commentator characterized the post-election situation as "increasingly grim," suggesting that "efforts should be focused on war."

Although Beijing's official response was more restrained than most unofficial media commentaries, one Chinese expert discounted the government's apparent equanimity, observing that "before a tiger attacks, it remains calm and quiet."

It has often been noted that the Chinese term for crisis -- weiji -- is a compound of two other terms: danger (weixian) and opportunity (jihui). While the danger in the current situation is obvious, there may also be opportunities. Already, a few voices of reason in China are openly suggesting that the old policies have failed, and that new Taiwanese realities may call for a new Chinese approach.

As one prominent political commentator noted last week, "A sound policy is more valuable than thousands of troops. . . . Our most urgent task is to formulate a new Taiwan policy and a new Taiwan line that keeps abreast of the times."

While it is unrealistic to expect Beijing to renounce the one-China goal any time soon -- no Chinese leader can afford to be saddled with the blame for "losing Taiwan" -- a number of small, conciliatory steps could plausibly be taken.

The first would be for Beijing to stop demonizing Chen and Lu. A second would be to allow Taiwan a modicum of international space by withdrawing Beijing's perennial objection to Taiwanese membership in international bodies such as the World Health Organization. Yet another would be to permit, without political preconditions, the resumption of long-stalled negotiations on the establishment of the "three links" -- direct cross-Strait commerce, transportation and postal communication. This could be done without foreclosing the possibility of eventual unification.

While such concessions would undoubtedly be difficult for Beijing's proud, patriotic leaders to swallow, the alternative of a cross-Strait war to prevent Taiwanese independence, with the high probability of American military intervention, would be more painful still.

Soothing words

Not surprising, Chen, in the vote's aftermath, has sought to reassure both China and the United States that he plans no formal declaration of Taiwanese independence. This will be small comfort to Beijing, however, since Chen's proposed 2006 constitutional overhaul may have the effect of annulling Taiwan's legal designation as the "Republic of China," thereby formally cutting the umbilical cord that has historically linked Taiwan to China.

That prospect -- and the very real possibility of pre-emptive Chinese military action -- has significantly raised the level of apprehension in Washington.

Caught between the conflicting goals of maintaining a peaceful, cooperative relationship with Beijing and Bush's commitment to "do whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself against attack from China, U.S. policy-makers must steer a precarious intermediate course -- restraining Chen's more grandiose ambitions, while simultaneously encouraging Beijing to display greater tolerance for the reality (if not the formality) of Taiwan's separate existence.

In such a highly charged situation, it will require exceptional diplomatic flexibility and finesse on all sides to avert a possible calamity in the Taiwan Strait.

RICHARD BAUM, a professor of political science at UCLA, is director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies and the author of "Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping." He wrote this article for Perspective.