Taiwan's Ballot Defense

Ruled with an iron fist, China has thrown a great deal of military energy and diplomacy at a vibrant democracy off its coast, one it wants to control. Elections on the island of Taiwan have also sometimes upset ties between the emerging superpower in Beijing and the world's sole superpower in Washington.

On Sunday, Taiwanese voters seemed to send a message through legislative elections that President Chen Shui-bian should not go any further in trying to declare independence for Taiwan. Mr. Chen's ruling Democratic Progressive Party made only modest gains, while the get-along-with-China Nationalists picked up far more legislators than expected.

The problem with this message is twofold. One, it reinforces China's perception that its military threats against Taiwan can scare voters into submission. And two, it echoes President Bush's recent warnings to Chen to go easy on official independence, signaling Beijing that it can count on Washington to help rein in Taiwan.

Of course, election messages aren't always that simple. Taiwanese politics is mostly about the "identity politics" of whether to create, or rather enhance, a culture independent of the 1.2 billion Chinese across the straits. The trend toward that type of independence cannot be stopped, and Beijing knows it. That's why it's anxious to force a confrontation with Taiwan sooner rather than later.

This election thus makes it more difficult for China to confront Taiwan's "separatists." In other words, China didn't win. It lost. And Taiwan's president, despite this new political weakness, can continue to slowly nurture full independence.

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