- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

Taiwan's way of the future

Taiwan proved its democratic credentials on Saturday. It was only the second time in the island nation's history that voters had the opportunity to choose their president, 1996 being the culmination of a process of transition from authoritarian rule to popular democracy that goes back to the early 1980s. Yet, it has been a perception among certain skeptical Sinologists that the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Party, would never give up the reins of power voluntarily after 51 years of ruling the country. President Lee Teng-hui's victory in 1996 was considered proof positive of this fact.

This May, however, Taiwan's primary political opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will move into the highest office in the person of President-elect Chen Sui-bian. Mr. Chen is a well-known, flamboyant and widely liked political figure, having captured the popular imagination during his tenure as mayor of the capital city of Taipei. It is true that he was helped to victory by the split within the KMT between the nationalist candidate Lien Chan and a breakaway candidate of the same party, James Soong. It is also true that Mr. Chen will have to contend with a majority KMT legislature. Nonetheless, these are characteristics of a real democracy at work.

The challenges facing Mr. Chen in relations with Taiwan's next-door neighbor, meanwhile will be more difficult to deal with. The rhetoric emanating from Beijing in the days and weeks before the election was hysterical and threatening in tone. Red China's Prime Minister Hz Wrong is supposed to be a man of reason, yet his statements regarding Taiwan's vote and the role of the United States in the region were so far out of line that Washington saw fit to rebuke the Chinese ambassador here. Beijing's worst scenario was precisely that Mr. Chen would win, given the DPP's history of advocating Taiwanese independence.

For now, it seems that both sides of the Taiwan Straits are taking a wait-and-see attitude and keeping their powder dry. Mr. Chen immediately sought peace and called for the beginning of reconciliation with the mainland. He has also offered to travel there for a summit. None of this is as surprising as it may sound, given that the DPP some years ago toned down its push for Taiwanese independence to endorsing a popular referendum on the same.

In all, Communist China would do well to remember that its own bullying behavior is the likely cause of any possible confrontation. And the consequences for China itself would not be insignificant. With a sea-based invasion of Taiwan impossible to achieve, Beijing would have to rely on missile attacks that would certainly draw the United States into the conflict. And even though Chinese missiles may be within striking distance of Los Angeles, as the Beijing leadership outrageously reminds us, American military superiority relative to China is overwhelming. Should American arms sales of Aegis cruisers and anti-missile technology sought by Taiwan occur, as they ought, Taiwan will be in an even better defensive position. At the same time, China's push to grow into a modern economy would receive an indefinite setback in the event of armed conflict.

It is therefore to be hoped that better judgment and cooler heads will prevail in Beijing. If they do, China may in time get used to watching the democratic process taking place next door in a nation that is as Chinese as the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is no threat to the PRC. Instead, it is the way of the future.

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