TAIPEI, TAIWAN — BUOYED by his election triumph, Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui has pledged to make peace with China. What Taiwanese now ask is, Will China listen?
Saturday's presidential vote was a resounding win for the island's incumbent leader. China threatened Taiwan with military force and vilified Mr. Lee in the weeks leading up to the election, but he commanded a surprising 54 percent of the vote and crushed three opponents favoring either independence or conciliation with the mainland.
More than 10 million Taiwanese flocked to the polls, a rousing 76 percent turnout in an election that was the first ever for a head of state in millenniums of Chinese history.
China claims Taiwan as part of the mainland and has accused Lee of secretly plotting to lead the island toward independence, a claim he denies. Instead, Lee says he favors reunification but hedges that democratic change on the Communist mainland must come first.
The rival Chinas have been divided since 1949, when mainland Communists defeated Gen. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, who took refuge on Taiwan and set up their own government.
Three-quarters of Taiwanese voters Saturday rebuffed China, either supporting Lee's middle-of-the-road stance or the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which won second place with 21 percent of the vote.
Still, amid the political euphoria, Taiwanese wonder if their domineering neighbor will compromise with a president who was elected for defying China.
"Lee Teng-hui reflects the reality for the majority: Taiwanese can't accept the ways of China. We want to make our own choices and control our own lives," says Lee Tao, a Taiwanese TV talk show host often likened to CNN's Larry King.
"Lee Teng-hui ... must be concerned and deal carefully with China," he observed, urging the president to seek middle ground. "He can't go across the line."
With the latest of China's war games off the Taiwan coast expected to end today, a respite from recent tensions seems to be under way. Beijing began mounting military pressure on the island last summer after Lee made a private visit to the US. The trip was seen by China as another attempt by Lee to raise the island's international profile and lead it toward independence.
The second of two US battleship groups led by the USS Nimitz arrived in the waters off Taiwan this weekend. Earlier, the USS Independence, another aircraft carrier, was dispatched to the area to check possible Chinese aggression. China has vowed to attack Taiwan if it declares independence.
Yesterday, Taiwan's newly elected vice president, Lien Chan, said the island would seriously seek a peace agreement with the mainland, although the process would take time. Before the election, Economic Minister Chiang Pin-kung called for boosting Taiwan's already extensive trade and investment ties with China.
Before starting his new term on May 20, Lee is expected to call a national conference to seek consensus on mainland policy. He could also ease his campaign to raise Taiwan's international profile and revive talks to open direct transportation and communication ties with the mainland Taiwanese, analysts say.
China was dismissive of the election results, but tentatively raised hopes for new talks. Mainland officials, who only days ago had branded Lee a "dictator" destined to be discarded in "the dustbin of history," ignored the president's stunning victory. Instead, they found solace in slipping support for Taiwanese proponents of outright independence, a signal that Chinese reunification is "the fundamental desire of all the Chinese people in the world," a government statement said.
"From our side, we believe the door to negotiation is still open," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang in a television interview. "The key is for the Taiwan authorities to give up their pursuit of two Chinas, one China and one Taiwan, and their attempts to split China."
In coming weeks, both sides will have to navigate carefully the dangerous waters of domestic politics, Taiwanese and Western analysts say. With anti-China sentiment running high in Taiwan, the outspoken Lee will have to be cautious and not overstep his mandate for moderation.
"Our independent sovereignty, no one can compromise. That's not for sale," says Antonio Chiang, a prominent political commentator in Taipei. "Other than that, Lee Teng-hui can open up [to China]."
"Clearly, 75 percent of the voters think China's coercion is not acceptable and reunification is not important," says Michael Kau, a Taiwan specialist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Lee is fairly pragmatic and realistic. He knows that prolonged conflict will not be good for Taiwan."
In China, Beijing's fractious leadership has been stunned by Taiwanese voters' sharp rebuke, Taiwanese and Western analysts say. The Communist Party has been torn by infighting as the influence of long-time leader Deng Xiaoping fades. A strident Chinese nationalism has taken the place of Marxism, eroded and discredited by market-style economic reforms.
With China's inflammatory Taiwan policy in tatters, President Jiang Zemin, a political fence-sitter who many say has been forced to play tough by hard-line politicians and generals, could find more room for moderation.
Telling it like it is
"This election result gives Jiang Zemin the opportunity to tell the military that their threat is not working," says Mr. Kau. "Beijing is going through a pretty rough time. Jiang Zemin is more interested in pushing ahead with the agenda of economic reform than in messing it up with the Taiwan issue."
For many in Taiwan, the election was "the most precious moment in our history," as Lee told tens of thousands of cheering supporters at campaign headquarters in Taipei. But the outcome hasn't settled Taiwan's dispute with the Communist mainland. It has opened up a contentious new era in which the island's giant neighbor looms larger than ever, Taiwanese say.
"The scariest part is that this issue of China could come back time and time again," says Tim Chen, an accountant who just returned from studying in the United States. "If this is not resolved satisfactorily now, this issue will keep cropping up.