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Taiwan president-elect's bold mandate: improve ties with China, U.S.

Ma Ying-jeou, a former mayor of Taipei and Harvard Law School graduate, may face resistance to his conciliatory approach.

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Ma's promise to boost incomes by promoting closer trade and investment ties with China was partly echoed by Mr. Hsieh, suggesting consensus amid Taiwan's fractious politics. Analysts and colleagues warn that Ma's olive branch will quickly encounter friction, though, if his trade negotiators brush up against Beijing's implacable claim over Taiwan, an island that is sovereign in all but name.

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One irritant in that relationship appeared to fade Saturday when most voters ignored two referendums asking if they supported Taiwan's bid to join the United Nations, which China and the US had criticized in advance. Only 35 percent of voters participated, in contrast to a 76 percent turnout on the presidential ballot. That rendered the referendums, which were overwhelmingly yes votes, invalid.

In his press conference, Ma said that he wanted Taiwan to be a "responsible stakeholder" in international circles and to restore "mutual trust" with the US, Taiwan's closest ally. He said he would seek to restore direct air links with China and bring more Chinese tourists to Taiwan as his first steps towards economic cooperation that may eventually yield a "common market" for goods and services.

Ma's popularity could rile China

But the road to d├ętente with Beijing, a key plank of Ma's program, is still lined with speed bumps. One unexpected hurdle may emerge from Ma's own popularity, both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong and other parts of China, says Christopher McNally, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii. As Ma begins to reach out to China, and his international profile rises, hard-liners in Beijing may think twice about giving a platform to a photogenic leader whose legitimacy is based on a free vote.

"It was easy to demonize Chen and portray Taiwan democracy as an aberration, something that wasn't natural and didn't function well," says Mr. McNally. By contrast, Ma may prompt more Chinese "to become aware of Taiwan as a working democracy with a well-spoken leader, and to ask why they can't elect a leader like that?"

Jason Hu, a longtime friend and colleague of Ma, says his presidency will mark a turning point for Taiwan. A KMT executive twice-elected mayor of Taichung, the country's third-largest city, Mr. Hu denies opposition claims that KMT control of both the legislature and presidency for the first time since 2000 will stifle Taiwan's young democracy. Instead, he says, Ma can heal the divisions while reviving civic pride.

"I really want [Ma] to be a president of all people. Not just for a party, or part of the people ... to be a president that respects the Constitution and the system," he says.