News analysis: Outcome in Taiwan stokes tension

Posted in China , Asia | 22-Mar-04 | Author: Keith Bradsher and Joseph Kahn| Source: The New York Times

TAIPEI - President Chen Shui-bian's hair's-breadth victory in a disputed election seems likely to deepen political and ethnic tensions in Taiwan and perhaps increase the chances of a future confrontation with mainland China, analysts say.

Chen's narrow win - by fewer than 30,000 votes out of more than 13 million cast - has prompted a legal challenge from the opposition Nationalist Party and at least raised the possibility that the election could be overturned in court.

But assuming, as many political experts here do, that Chen's hold on power is secure, the close election puts the president deeply in debt to his most hard-line political allies. A vocal coalition of supporters backed him on the expectation that he will push a nationalist agenda and achieve formal independence for the island within four years.

And after defeating Lien Chan, who had advocated easing tensions and increasing integration with the mainland, Chen is also likely to rely heavily on the United States to make sure that China does not use military force to topple him from power. Washington recognizes Beijing's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, but has also vowed to defend the island against a Chinese attack.

Chen, who suffered a gunshot wound on the eve of an election in what the police called an attempted assassination, has spoken in almost messianic terms about his mission for a second term.

"One thing is for sure about Chen Shui-bian," said Yan Xuetong, a prominent foreign policy expert at Qinghua University in Beijing, "he is determined to be the founding father of a new nation by 2008. The question for China is where it will draw the line, and how it will act to stop him," Yan added.

Yan said it was a small consolation to China that two referendum questions on relations with the mainland that were held along with the presidential poll did not achieve the required 50 percent participation to be considered valid, despite Chen's support. But Yan said he doubted that Chen would stop putting forward referendums on sensitive topics and may even make them a regular feature of Taiwanese politics.

Even if Chen intends to move Taiwan toward formal independence down the road, he will face important constraints. One is the fact that his Democratic Progressive Party does not control a majority of seats in Parliament, where the president's legislative priorities frequently languish. Another is that President George W. Bush has made clear that he will not support any steps by Chen to change the status quo with China.

A third could be that the still powerful Nationalist Party, which had been given a slight edge in the election by pollsters until the assassination attempt against Chen, will work even harder to thwart his agenda. The party's supporters say they are embittered by his victory.

Still, analysts noted that the dominant campaign theme of Chen and his allies was that they are the best promoters of Taiwan's national identity. They sometimes disparaged rivals as representing the interests of China, drawing sharp ethnic lines between Chinese mainlanders who arrived when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 and those who consider themselves native Taiwanese. Chen's re-election, however narrow, showed that he had increased his share of the vote to 50.11 percent from 39 percent in 2000, when he won his first term by a plurality.

"This election was really the point of no return for Taiwanese identity," said Philip Yang, a political expert at Taiwan Security Research. "It gives Chen a mandate on that question."

Taiwan identity involves promoting the island's main local language, Minnanese, as well as art, culture and education that distinguishes Taiwan from the mainland. It elicits visceral support from many Taiwanese who were suppressed by the Nationalists after 1949, including Chen, while alarming some descendants of mainlanders who consider themselves Chinese.

What worries both the United States and China is the grand target of the Taiwan identity movement: the name of the nation itself. It is currently called the Republic of China, which allows China to claim that it is still part of the Chinese motherland. But some hard-line Taiwanese are insisting on renaming the island the Republic of Taiwan and severing even nominal ties to China.