The Taiwan Strait is some-times called the most dangerous place in the world. On one side of the waterway is mainland China; on the other, the island of Taiwan, where Nationalist forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, retreated after their defeat by the communists in China's civil war. Beijing regards Taiwan as a "renegade province" and has said it is willing to use force if needed to prevent the island's independence. The U.S., for its part, is pledged to defend Taiwan if the island is attacked without provocation.
The President of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, seems to relish living on the edge. Born to a poor family in 1951, he symbolizes Taiwan's transition from Chiang's dictatorship to democracy and from a situation in which political power was dominated by refugees from the mainland to one in which native Taiwanese like himself lead the nation. Having narrowly won a second four-year term last year after surviving an apparent assassination attempt, Chen, 54, will remain in office until 2008.
Beijing can't stand him. China's leaders call him a "splittist" determined to break Taiwan away from the mainland for good. At times, Chen's rhetoric seems excessive, even in Taiwan's boisterous democracy. Voters denied him a victory in legislative elections last December, preferring parties that seek a greater accommodation with China, and since then Chen has deliberately reached out to Beijing. His overtures, however, have not been received with obvious rapture; last month China passed a law reiterating its willingness to use force should the island declare formal independence.
Though Chen summoned a million people into the streets on March 26 to protest that law, don't rule out the possibility that he may yet make a deal with Beijing. "I am a maker of history," he told TIME last year. If that turns out to be so, let's hope it's because Chen Shui-bian proves to be a force for reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait, not for war over it.