Beijing's Joy at Taiwan's Democracy

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Wally Santana / AP

KMT supporters celebrate the party's landslide in Taiwan's legislative elections in Taipei, Jan. 12, 2008.

There is certainly no love lost between the rulers of the People's Republic of China and President Chen Shui-bian over on Taiwan, the island Beijing considers a breakaway province. Again and again, the Communist regime has been infuriated by Chen's efforts to push the island closer to independence, completing its transformation from an exiled regime — the Republic of China, with its pretensions of ruling the mainland — into an entity completely separate from China, a fully sovereign nation called Taiwan. And so, on Saturday, one could almost hear the cheering in China after Chen's Democratic Progressive Party suffered a humiliating loss in Taiwan's legislative elections. Just almost. The Chinese have learned to keep their feelings to themselves over Taiwan.

The Communists have learned that trying too hard to influence political affairs on the raucously democratic island only backfires. The Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China, won 81 of Legislative Yuan's 113 seats, soundly defeating Chen's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which took 27. The win also gives momentum to KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou over DPP rival Frank Hsieh in the March 22 vote. Chen Shui-bian called it the worst setback in the history of the DPP, and took responsibility by resigning as the party's chairman.

In 1996, when Taiwan held its first direct presidential election, China fired missiles into the strait that separates the island from the mainland in an attempt to bully voters into not supporting the independence-leaning candidate Lee Teng-hui. The act had the opposite effect and instead helped boost support for Lee; he won by a large margin. Since then Beijing has slowly been learning its lesson. "Whenever Taiwan has a big election, if Beijing makes a remark about local politics in Taiwan [it] will have a counterproductive effect," says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a Taipei-based think tank.

During this election cycle in Taiwan, Beijing has taken a subtle approach. Last year Taiwan's President Chen announced plans for a referendum that would ask voters whether the island should seek to join the United Nations under the name "Taiwan." The island, which lost its U.N. representation in 1971 when its seat was switched to Beijing, has been blocked in several attempts to re-join the body under its formal name of "Republic of China." While the referendum will have little practical effect — the island doesn't have the support to enter the U.N. under any name — it was the sort of move that once would have sent Beijing into a frenzy. While the Chinese government has said it would not tolerate the referendum, it has toned down its rhetoric and instead relied on pressure from the U.S., Taiwan's biggest ally, to discourage the move. In December U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the move was "a provocative policy." The fate of two referendum issues in Saturday's ballot (both failed to garner enough votes — or voter interest — to be seriously considered) would also make the controversial U.N. referendum in March unlikely to pass.

Beijing should also be happy with the mood of Taiwan's electorate. "People want the government [in Taipei] to revive the economy and bring order back to politics," says Political Science Professor Chao Chien-min of National Chengchi University in Taiwan. "The majority is fed up with Chen's political engineering of controversies, ethnic tensions and referendums."

In fact, no matter whether the KMT's Ma or the DPP's Hsieh wins the presidential election in March, Taiwan will most likely begin to have direct trade and air links to China. Currently, what would be just a 90-minute trip between Taipei and Shanghai is a nearly seven-hour haul through a third city, usually Hong Kong. Taiwan's businessmen have lobbied for direct flights for years, but China has been unwilling to negotiate because of its anger at Chen.

Sticky issues remain — including the nature of the Taipei regime in relation to the government in Beijing if both are part of "One China." Ma believes he can skirt the issue by referring to the government in Taiwan by its official name, The Republic of China, based on a consensus the KMT says was reached with Beijing in 1992. (The DPP maintains that no agreement was ever made.) "If that issue is resolved," says Chao, "there's no limit to what can be agreed upon — direct links and tourist exchanges could happen immediately."

Even though it has moderated its talk about Taiwan, China continues to carry the big stick in the relationship and can ratchet up the pressure when it wants. Beijing's diplomacy, for example, continues to reduce Taiwan's international presence. In recent years Senegal and Costa Rica dropped their recognition of Taiwan, leaving it with ties to just 24 countries. Last month Malawi sent diplomats to Beijing, raising fears in Taiwan that the small African state could drop its recognition of Taipei and establish formal diplomatic ties with China. And the coercion is not merely political.

Furthermore, China's ability to use military force to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence grows along with the budget for the People's Liberation Army, which has increased by more than 10% annually for the past 10 years. Chen says that there are now more than 1,300 missiles stationed on the Chinese mainland direct across the Taiwan Strait, up from the 200 when he became president in 2000. But these days Beijing has shown it can better influence events without firing them.