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Taiwan's Presidential Politics

8:44 AM, Mar 10, 2008 • By JENNIFER CHOU
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In the run-up to Taiwan's first-ever direct presidential election in 1996, China fired three ballistic missiles into the island's territorial waters in an attempt to dissuade its electorate from voting for the independence-minded Lee Teng-hui. Lee won by a landslide.

Four years later, then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji warned that Beijing was ready to "shed blood" if Chen Shuibian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were elected leader of Taiwan. Chen won in a three-way race, ending more than a half century of rule by the Nationalist Party (KMT).

On March 22 Taiwan voters will elect a new president. Also on the ballot are two referendums on UN membership--one proposed by the DPP, the other by the KMT. The much-disputed DPP version asks whether the government should seek to join the UN under the name Taiwan. Regarded as a ploy for the self-ruled island to pursue de jure independence, it has drawn criticism from Beijing, Washington, and the EU as a threat to peace in the region.

Beijing, however, seems to have taken to heart lessons from 1996 and 2000. China's displeasure over the referendums was not conveyed by the country's top leaders, but instead by Jiang Enzhu, spokesman of this year's parliamentary session, who warned last week that Chen Shuibian and Taiwan authorities would "pay a dear price" if they pursued their efforts to gain membership in the UN. And there is no sign that Beijing is gearing up to express its disapproval through military gestures.

Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao finds especially significant the remarks last week of Chinese president Hu Jintao. Hu, while calling for the resumption of cross-Strait dialogue, not only steered clear of the referendum issue but went so far as to claim that Beijing wished to "bring together as many Taiwan compatriots as possible," including those that "once harbored illusions about Taiwan independence, advocated Taiwan independence, and even engaged in activities promoting Taiwan independence."

Besides bitter past lessons, there could be other motivations for what Lianhe Zaobao describes as Beijing's "soft approach." First and foremost, Chen Shuibian has alienated Washington by insisting on holding the referendum. U.S. opposition to the vote has been articulated repeatedly by senior administration officials, most recently by Secretary Rice last month during her visit to China. Beijing can well afford to appear magnanimous while Washington plays the role of bad cop.

Second, there is a good chance that the referendums will not pass by the required margins. While Taiwan's "national identity" was a key issue in previous elections, this time it has taken a back seat to economic concerns, as evidenced by yesterday's televised debate between KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou and the DPP's Frank Hsieh. This past Saturday, Hsieh, who has been trailing Ma by double digits, indicated that he might be willing to separate the referendums from the balloting for president.

Beijing's wait-and-see approach may be paying off.