Taiwan's Ma Wins Election, Looks to Defuse Tensions

Associated Press

Ma Ying-jeou rode to power in Taiwan promising to defuse simmering tensions with rival China and to expand trade ties with its giant communist neighbor.

But fears about Beijing's motives run deep on this island of 23 million people, and they could easily delay Ma's program or even derail it completely.

Ma was elected Taiwanese president Saturday, cruising past Frank Hsieh to end eight years of control by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP.

His key campaign promise was to reverse outgoing President Chen Shui-bian's policy of emphasizing Taiwan's political separateness from China -- the two sides split amid civil war in 1949 -- and work to take fuller advantage of the mainland's white-hot economic boom.

Among Ma's priorities is to open direct flights across the 160-kilometer-wide (100-mile-wide) Taiwan Strait, and to strive toward a framework for peace and security with Beijing.

But Ma's efforts could be complicated by fears that China might try to take advantage of the DPP's downfall by pressing forward with its claim that Taiwan must either unify with the mainland or face the threat of attack.

Political scientist Emile Sheng of Taipei's Soochow University said that Ma's China-friendly attitude was not the major factor in his victory, constraining his ability to accommodate Beijing.

"This (victory) is not a signal that the Taiwanese people want unification or that they like Ma's party" he said.

Rather, said Sheng, voters were turned off by Chen, who in eight years in office gained a reputation for economic mismanagement, administrative bungling, political brinksmanship and tolerating corruption.

He said that for Ma to prosper politically, he will have to convince ordinary Taiwanese he does not mean to sell their interests out to a country many of them fear.

Taiwanese opinion polls consistently register strong aversion to the unification option, giving only a 10 percent-15 percent support level. Pro-independence sentiment is considerably higher, though it is muted by China's threats to attack if the independence option is ever acted on.

Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval War College in the U.S. state of Rhode Island agreed with Sheng that Ma's election was a vote of no confidence in Chen, rather than a green light for rapid China engagement.

"It's impossible to interpret the outcome as anything but a repudiation and humiliation of President Chen," he said.

Still, Pollack said the desire of many Taiwanese to harness their high-tech infrastructure to China's manufacturing juggernaut provides strong backing to Ma's economic proposals, including opening direct flights across the Taiwan Strait and lowering barriers to Taiwanese investment on the mainland.

Pollack said a major choice facing Ma is whether to give prominent government roles to Nationalist veterans who favor moving rapidly to engage China and may even support eventual unification.

Ma himself has promised that no unification negotiations will be held during his presidency.

George Tsai of Taipei's Chinese Culture University said that Ma's huge margin of victory insulated him from possible pressure from the China engagement hawks.

"If Ma had only won a small majority, it would have been easy for hard-liners in his party to challenge him," he said. "But because his majority was so big, they can't assail his authority. They can't get anywhere close."