- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan headed for better relations with mainland China yesterday with the election of the opposition Nationalist Party’s candidate as president.

Simultaneously, two referendums calling on the government to work for the island’s entry into the United Nations as an independent entity — strongly opposed by Beijing — were defeated.

“Cross-strait relations have stagnated, so we have to prioritize things,” Nationalist candidate Ma Ying-jeou told supporters after the Central Election Commission announced he defeated Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“When we improve relations with the mainland, we will also strengthen our security ties with Washington,” he said.

Mr. Ma, the 57-year-old Harvard-educated former mayor of Taipei, won 58 percent of the vote, compared to 41.5 percent for his challenger, according to the election commission. Turnout was 76 percent, the commission said.

Confetti snowed down on giddy followers at Mr. Ma’s headquarters, and fireworks exploded in the sky. Mr. Ma’s win returns the presidency to the Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for five decades before suffering defeats in the past two elections.

Mr. Ma won his victory after the Nationalist Party, which once ruled all of China, clinched a more than two-thirds majority in legislative elections in January, giving it a clear mandate to push ahead with its policies to boost an economy that has lagged some Asian peers.

One of the two referendums asked voters if they would support the island’s application to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan, rather than under its long-standing official title, the Republic of China. About 5.5 million “yes” votes were counted, when approximately 8.5 million votes were necessary for passage, election commission figures show.

Mr. Ma said he had no plans to go to China but hinted that he would visit other major nations before taking office on May 20.

The mainland’s communist leadership quickly expressed approval of the outcome of the U.N. referendum, which had been pushed strongly by the outgoing DPP administration.

“That referendum has failed, which goes to show that the people are not in favor of those who advocate Taiwan independence,” Li Weiyi, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told Taiwanese reporters in Beijing.

The United States, Japan and Singapore congratulated the soon-to-be new Taiwanese leader.

President Bush called Taiwan a beacon of democracy and said it and Beijing had to talk in order to build foundations for stability and refrain from unilateral steps.

“The election provides a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences,” he said.

Mr. Ma promised voters he will try to negotiate a peace treaty with Beijing and deepen Taiwan’s already robust economic relationship with the mainland.

The outgoing president, Chen Shui-bian, has drawn Beijing’s ire with calls for independence.

Mr. Hsieh’s DPP favors formal independence, while Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party wants reunification once China embraces democracy.

As Mr. Chen’s independence agenda also has upset Washington, Mr. Ma pledged “not to rock the boat in regional waters,” but said he would recommend a China-related defense budget totaling about 3 percent of GDP.

After the vote, Mr. Ma said he would work for better relations with Beijing but would not be a pushover. He is insisting China dismantle the more than 1,000 missiles it has aimed at Taiwanese targets.

Mr. Ma says he favors creating a common economic market with China and opening direct air and shipping links across the Taiwan Strait. He is particularly interested in expanding the China-Taiwan high-tech connection, which every year sends billions of dollars’ worth of Taiwan’s advanced components to low-cost assembly plants along China’s rapidly developing coast.

Yesterday’s election was about much more than China policy. Many voters were fed up with corruption scandals, legislative bickering and the sputtering economy. Mr. Chen himself was enormously unpopular.

Although Mr. Ma’s victory was widely seen as a prelude to a calmer era across the Taiwan Strait, many analysts were split on how fast changes would happen.

“There is a window of opportunity for Taipei and Beijing to discuss peaceful arrangements to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait,” said Andrew Yang, a defense expert at Taipei’s Council of Advanced Political Studies.

However, George Tsai, political science professor at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University, said Mr. Ma would probably move slowly with China because he wanted to reassure voters he will not sell out Taiwan’s interests. Mr. Hsieh frequently warned voters that Mr. Ma would be too soft with Beijing.

“Even if Ma can manage to resume cross-strait dialogue and build mutual trust with Beijing, it probably will not happen in the first two years,” Mr. Tsai said.

The U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, under a “one China” policy, but remains the island’s main arms supplier and No. 2 trading partner.

Two U.S. aircraft carriers are in the region for training exercises. China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, trying to intimidate voters during an election, but has kept a fairly low profile in the current race.

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