Taiwan poised to warm ties with China

Both presidential hopefuls in Saturday's election want to boost economic relations.

For a glimpse of Taiwan's warming relations with China, come to this forested island just off the mainland coast.

Direct cross-strait travel is largely prohibited because of the decades-old standoff between Taiwan and China. But here in Kinmen, Chinese tourists visit freely and Taiwanese businessmen can ferry across the strait to the mainland.

The Kinmen model will be expanded to all of Taiwan if either of the two candidates in the Taiwan's presidential election Saturday has his way. Their only argument is over the speed and scale at which that should happen.

For behind all the boisterous rallies and China-bashing rhetoric across Taiwan in recent days, this election is not about the usual hot-button issue of unification with, or independence from, China – neither of which is in the cards anytime soon. Rather, it's about how economically close Taiwan should be with its giant neighbor. Will it be an uneasy handshake or a passionate embrace?

Either way, the candidates' willingness to engage rather than confront Beijing signals a pause in Taiwan's independence push and the likely cooling of a long-simmering Asian flash point.

"No matter who wins, we'll move closer to China," says Lin Wen-cheng, a China expert at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung and a former adviser to two Taiwan presidents. "Cross-strait relations are going to improve."

From battlefront to tourist stop

Kinmen was a dangerous front line in the mid-20th century, with some 100,000 Kuomintang soldiers engaged in fierce artillery battles with the Communists just a few miles across the water.

Now, only about 5,000 Taiwanese soldiers remain at coastal gun emplacements and other sites. Ferry terminals have replaced minefields; in 2001, daily runs were established with two cities on the mainland. These give Chinese tourists a chance to visit Taiwan and some Taiwanese businessmen a shortcut to their mainland factories. Most cross-strait travel, by contrast, must pass through a third location such as Hong Kong.

China-Kinmen transits have soared from 21,000 in 2001 to 725,000 last year; homeward-bound mainlanders crowd the ferry terminal with huge hauls of the island's famous goods.

Boosting cross-strait ties

The Kuomintang's (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou, who led in the latest available polls, has made the more ambitious pledges of the two candidates. He promises direct cross-strait flights, more Chinese tourists and investment allowed into Taiwan, and, possibly, a cross-strait common market. He also wants to engage Beijing in peace talks and is willing to accept the "one China" principle in order to do so.

His rival, Frank Hsieh, makes similar promises, but is more cautious. And his party refuses to accept any version of the "one China" principle, which would make cross-strait political talks more difficult, if not impossible.

Mr. Ma has an edge in the economic debate, which is why most analysts suggest that he'll win this weekend. Many islanders blame Mr. Hsieh's Democratic Progressive Party for Taiwan's poor economic performance. Real incomes are flat and Taiwan has lagged behind its fellow Asian "tigers" on indicators such as per capita gross domestic product.

Many voters, disillusioned with the party's corruption scandals and bumbling eight-year rule, want a change. And Ma is seen as an upright politician with an appealing economic plan.

Still, observers say Hsieh is mounting an 11th-hour comeback. "He's catching up," says analyst George Tsai. Hsieh has done that in part by running a relentlessly negative campaign. He has attacked Ma's patriotism and tried to scare voters with the prospect of a "one China market" under Ma that would see Chinese laborers, low-quality Chinese products, and Chinese agricultural imports flood into Taiwan. (Ma insists he would not allow in Chinese laborers and would limit Chinese imports.)

The unrest in Tibet gave Hsieh an opportunity to turn voters' focus to Taiwan's sovereignty, an issue where his party has an edge. Hsieh has said that if the more China-friendly Ma is elected, Taiwan could become another Tibet. Ma rejected this and lashed out at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao for saying Tuesday that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should decide Taiwan's fate.

He called Mr. Wen "ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish, and self-righteous" – a clear attempt to avoid being seen as soft on China.

In fact, the two candidates agree that Taiwan is a sovereign state whose future can only be determined by the Taiwanese. Ma has been sharply critical of China in the past, saying, for example, that Beijing should apologize for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and that it must remove the 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan before peace talks can begin.

That record has convinced many Taiwanese that he can protect the island's democracy. Chen Kai-lun, a flower-shop owner in Taichung, says he doesn't buy Hsieh's scare tactics. "Ma won't sell us out. I trust him."

Beijing prefers Ma

For its part, Beijing would prefer Ma as president, because his party has traditionally opposed Taiwan independence. Observers expect a President Ma would make quick progress on tourists, investment, and direct flights, while Beijing would be more wary of Hsieh. "If Hsieh gets elected, Beijing will wait and see what Hsieh does after he takes power," says Jin Canrong of Renmin University of China in Beijing.

In Kinmen, people are focused on livelihood issues. "The economy's not good; it's hard to bear," says KMT supporter Chen Zan-sheng.

Outside a nearby restaurant popular with Chinese tour groups, Kinmen government official Fu Yang-tu says this view is common. "People in Kinmen support whoever has better policies for the economy," says Fu. "Most think Ma's are better."

That's not surprising – 90 percent or more on this outlying island support the KMT. But in this election, many Taiwanese are joining Kinmen's residents by voting with their wallets, not their hearts.

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