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Taipei Vote Could Foil U.S.-China Peace

November 25, 1998|JIM MANN

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Chen Shui-bian, the short, slight, bespectacled mayor of this grimy city, doesn't hide his eagerness for an independent Taiwan.

"I'm the only one who has the courage to say no to China," he said during an interview this week, relaxing in his campaign headquarters before rushing off to three election rallies in a single evening. "The future of Taiwan should be determined by the people of Taiwan."

Chen's words help explain why America and China could well be headed for another crisis over Taiwan in a couple of years--one that could match the confrontation of 1996.

Back then, angered by Taiwan's first direct presidential elections, China fired missiles into the waters near the island, and the Clinton administration countered by sending an armada--including two aircraft carriers--to help protect the island.

Two years later, the Clinton administration and China have made up with one another. But this accommodation could easily fall apart again over Taiwan, particularly if events on this island force America to make a choice between its democratic principles and its desire for a stable Asia.

Taiwan will hold its next presidential election in March 2000. The Democratic Progressive Party, which formally espouses independence for Taiwan, could conceivably upset the Kuomintang (KMT), which has ruled the island for the past half-century and remains committed to Taiwan's eventual reunification with China.

The DPP's leading presidential candidate is Chen, who is running for his second term as mayor of Taipei on Dec. 5. The results will be a test both of Chen's political future and of Taiwan's.

"It's a turning point for Taiwan politics and for cross-straits relations," observed Andrew Yang, a scholar at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

"If Chen Shui-bian loses, it will be a setback for Taiwan independence. If Chen wins, China will send a message to the United States that America has got to come up with some kind of policy to contain this."

The Kuomintang, the party that Chiang Kai-shek transported from the mainland to Taiwan, is pulling out all the stops to improve its chances of keeping the presidency in 2000. Seeking to overcome its past image as an entrenched and corrupt organization, the KMT has chosen its most attractive candidate, Ma Ying-jeoh, to run for mayor against Chen.

This election promises to be a close one. "It's kind of a 50-50 tug of war," says John Chang, the KMT's party leader.

Ma, 48, a former justice minister, is perhaps the best and the brightest of the second-generation Chinese mainlanders whose parents fled to Taiwan as the Communist Party was winning the Chinese civil war. About 20% of Taiwan's residents are mainlanders like Ma. The other 80% are ethnic Taiwanese whose families have lived on the island for centuries.

The two candidates provide a study in the ethnic divisions that have persisted in Taiwan for the past half-century.

Ma, a member of Taiwan's Chinese elite, graduated from Harvard Law School. He speaks fluent English but has been struggling during this campaign to give speeches in the Taiwanese dialect spoken by most of the island's population. "He can manage a few sentences," grumbled one Taiwanese resident.

By contrast, Chen, also 48, comes from a Taiwanese family and worked his way through law school on the island. He gives rousing speeches in the island's dialect, but can't speak English without a translator.

On the surface, the mayoral election campaign is about local issues such as crime and transportation. "I'm running for mayor, not president," says Chen. Yet the underlying issues are ethnic politics and Taiwan's future relationship with China.

Chen's DPP supporters have been suggesting that the KMT candidate would be a tool of Beijing. That seems unlikely for Ma, whose life and career have been on Taiwan, not the mainland.

Twelve years ago, Ma sat in on an interview I conducted with an elderly KMT party secretary, who casually asked me to convey his greetings to a friend in Beijing he had not seen since the 1940s.

Afterward, Ma nervously urged me not to pass on the message. "We don't trust this older generation," he said of his boss. "They all worked with the Communists on the mainland. They might make a deal [for Taiwan's future] behind our backs."

Despite such skepticism, Ma would be easier for China to do business with than Chen. The DPP has said that if it comes to power, it will hold some form of a plebiscite on whether Taiwan should be considered part of China or independent from it.

Imagine the thorny questions such a plebiscite would pose for American foreign policy.

President Clinton emphasized in China last spring that the United States did not support independence for Taiwan. Yet as Vice President Al Gore showed in his own recent visit to Malaysia, America also regularly espouses the cause of democracy in Asia.

What would America do if the voters of Taiwan made clear, in a plebiscite, that they did not want reunification with China?

"For Taiwan, the status quo means indecision," says Yang. "And China sees that the status quo provides more time for Taiwan to seek independence. Right now, the only party satisfied with the status quo on Taiwan is the United States."

That is why, over the next few years, the fragile peace America has worked out in Asia could be upset by the ripple effects of next week's mayoral race in Taipei.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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