A Chinese Dog That Didn't Bark

Independent from China in all but name, Taiwan holds a presidential election on Saturday. It's the third one since democracy began on the island in 1987 and thus a great hurrah for those who always claimed Confucian culture could coexist with free-wheeling, Western democracy.

But the election is also the first in which the Chinese mainland's Communist Party didn't try hard to intimidate Taiwan - such as shooting test missiles near the island, as it did in 1996, nearly sparking a conflict with the US.

That's probably because Beijing's policy on Taiwan, as well as opposing democracy for China, is becoming more unsustainable. Beijing needs to rethink its premise that it can take the island by force if Taiwan officially declares independence.

The election itself could shift Taiwan either closer or farther from China, depending on who wins.

The current president, Chen Shui-bian, has tried to boost his chances by attaching two referendums to the ballot (a first for Taiwan). The questions ask if voters disapprove of China's heavy missile deployment across the Strait and if they approve of talks with Beijing. Mr. Chen's two main opponents reflect the old policy of an ambiguous status quo with China that allows for strong business ties.

No matter the outcome, China has so offended the Taiwanese in its diplomacy and worried them by its slapdown of democracy in Hong Kong that Beijing knows a feeling of independence will grow on the island. And its tactic of trying to wield influence with pressure on Taiwanese businesses in China isn't working well.

Desperate to defeat the pro-independence Chen and his referendums, the best that Beijing could do this time was to take the unusual step of pleading with an American president for help. President Bush tried, but was able only to tone down the wording of the referendums.

China needs to consider offering a loose association with Taiwan in return for dropping its military threat (combined with an open US guarantee for Taiwan's security). At the least, it should remove the 400 or more missiles deployed near the island.

That, and more cross-Strait commonsense, will help remove Taiwan as a flash point for war.

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