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Taiwan's Message

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

THE SHOOTING of a candidate; the street protests against his subsequent, razor-thin electoral victory; the allegation that the shooting might even have been staged to win sympathy votes: The last days of Taiwan's presidential contest projected an image of chaos. But while the demonstrations continue and the opposition is mounting a legal challenge to the result, the apparent reelection of Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's pro-independence leader, sends a message to Beijing and Washington. Taiwan's people don't want to provoke China with an outright declaration of independence, but they aren't going to bow to China either. Beijing's assertion that there is just "one China" -- an assertion that has long served the U.S. interest in avoiding a war that the United States would get sucked into -- is increasingly at odds with Taiwan's de facto emergence as a vibrant democracy.

Four years ago Mr. Chen was elected in a three-way race; he got 39 percent of the vote. This time his share rose to a fraction over 50 percent: Even if the opposition's legal challenge were to have some merit, Mr. Chen's support has clearly increased. Meanwhile, opinion polls in Taiwan suggest that a dwindling proportion of the population considers itself "Chinese" and that the overwhelming majority considers itself "Taiwanese" or a mixture of the two labels. Reflecting the pro-independence drift among voters, Mr. Chen's electoral opponent made a show of kissing Taiwanese soil at rallies. At the same time, however, the voters are smart enough to know that an abrupt break with China would be reckless, both because Beijing has repeatedly threatened to respond to such a move with force and because Taiwan has huge investments in mainland China. That is why a majority declined to vote in a referendum, held on the same day as the presidential contest, that China saw as a step toward independence.

The question is how Beijing -- and the Bush administration -- will respond to Taiwan's democratically expressed desire to find a new balance in its relations with China. Throughout Mr. Chen's first presidential term, the Chinese authorities ignored his suggestions of talks without preconditions, insisting that Mr. Chen first accept the "one China" principle. The new Chinese government of President Hu Jintao, which would like to be seen as pragmatic, now has a chance to rethink its obstinacy. The Bush administration, which has tried to restrain Mr. Chen's pro-independence leanings, needs to rethink its position too. Whatever the outcome of the island's Florida-style crisis, neither Mr. Chen nor the sentiment he represents are likely to disappear. It is in everyone's interest to seek a stabilization of relations across the Taiwan Strait: one that can be acceptable to Beijing while at the same time recognizing the yearning of a young democracy to be a "normal" nation.