Pro-independence Vote in Taiwan Raises Fear of Conflict With China

Opposition victories last week inject uncertainty in ties with mainland.

Taiwan's main opposition party is hailing its recent sweep of local elections as a great step forward for democracy, but the victory may also draw the island closer to war with the Chinese mainland.

The Democratic Progressive Party, formed as a pro-independence force just 10 years ago, surprised even local residents when it overwhelmed the ruling Nationalists in the island-wide poll.

"The DPP's win sets the stage for it to capture the presidency [of Taiwan] in the year 2000," says Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian, one of the island's fastest-rising political stars.

Yet behind the democrats' victory chants, residents in Taiwan and mainland China say they hear the faintest beat of war drums.

As the DPP appears increasingly likely to rule Taiwan by the turn of the century, its decision whether to steer the island toward confrontation or detente with the mainland may bring it down the path of war or peace.

The flashpoint is the question of independence for Taiwan. Although the DPP has moderated its position somewhat, the party was founded on the principle that Taiwan should be an independent country, free and separate from China.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of China and has always said that any declaration of independence for the island would bring a swift military invasion from the mainland.

Up to now, independence has been a fairly dormant threat. In an ironic twist, the ruling Nationalists agreed with Beijing that Taiwan was part of China, although until recently, they considered themselves the legitimate rulers of the Chinese nation.

The Nationalists fled to Taiwan from the mainland 50 years ago, following their defeat by the communists, and consolidated their rule with "the murder of a generation of Taiwanese intellectual and cultural leaders," says Tu Weiming, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Pent-up anger with the Nationalists' authoritarian rule garnered votes for the DPP with the island's first multiparty vote in 1987, but apprehension over the opposition's pro-independence platform initially limited its appeal.

Since then, the Democrats have blurred their stance on the issue, but "independence remains part of the DPP's constitution," says Mayor Chen.

The Chinese leadership seems startled by the DPP's upset win and is busy surveying the sea change in Taiwan's political landscape.

"The color of the heavens has been transformed in a moment," says a government official in Beijing, quoting a Chinese aphorism describing massive, rapid change.

Beijing will be closely watching Chen, who widely expected to be the DPP's presidential candidate in 2000.

"Chen Shui-bian is the ultimate populist in Taiwan," says the Beijing official. "So it's worrying to us that if the tides of popular emotion in Taiwan swing toward independence, Chen could be carried with the waves and ultimately trigger a war," he adds.

Yet scholars and citizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait wonder whether Chen, or any other presidential candidate, will risk the wrath of the mainland to score votes in Taiwan.

Chen deflects questions on whether he backs independence and says the island's moves toward democracy should be extended to allow its 21 million residents to decide the issue.

"The danger of China's using weapons or sending troops to attack us must be considered by the people in making their choice,"he says.

"Personally, I believe that peace is the only way to contribute to the welfare of Taiwan's people," he adds.

The Beijing official says the election of a DPP president in the year 2000 "in and of itself would not provoke a military response," but says the Chinese leadership "will only renounce its use of force against Taiwan after the island publicly renounces its calls for independence."

Yet such an act, while achieving a cross-strait peace, could be political suicide in Taiwan, where most of the populace opposes both reunification and a war for independence.

Chen says he does not want to see an armed clash with China. Yet he adds that if the uneasy truce that now guides cross-strait ties breaks, "Taiwan is an international economic center, and therefore not only the US, but the rest of the world, should support Taiwan."

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