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Taiwan Election Results Could Increase Cross-Strait Tensions - 2004-03-25

As Taiwan moves toward a recount in its disputed presidential election, several experts in the United States say they believe - if the current results are certified, and President Chen Shui-bian is, indeed, re-elected - cross-strait relations are likely to become more tense.

In public comments following the disputed Taiwanese election, the United States emphasized that it is not taking sides.

"I think it's important to remember the United States is supportive of free and fair elections in Taiwan, but we're strictly neutral as regards the outcome," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "Decisions on the challenges and recounts and those things, those are decisions for the people of Taiwan to make. We're confident that both sides and their supporters will remain calm, that they will use established legal mechanisms to resolve any questions about the election results."

The official determination of Taiwan's next president may seem like a strictly domestic matter. But the decision also will have a great impact on the delicate three-way relationship between the island, China and the United States.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of Chinese territory and has vowed to use force, if necessary, to keep the island from declaring independence. For its part, Washington has vowed to help defend Taiwan.

In this context, the two Taiwanese presidential candidates represent what are being publicly perceived as two different options for Taiwan's future. Incumbent President Chen Shui-bian was the winner by less than one percent of the vote. He is seen as supporting independence for Taiwan. His opponent, Lien Chan, is seen as favoring the status quo - in which Taiwan is governed separately, but does not formally declare itself an independent country.

Erich Shih, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution research organization, says he thinks the apparent outcome of the Taiwan election is not what Washington had hoped for. "I think the bottom line for the United States is they would prefer Mr. Lien to be elected president," he says. " But more importantly, the United States would live with and respect whatever lawful result that will be reached in Taiwan."

Mr. Shih says he believes the United States has already expressed to President Chen its concerns about moves toward Taiwanese independence, and will continue to do so in the future if President Chen's re-election is certified by a re-count.

"Then the United States will re-focus their effort and try to convey the concerns in Washington about his possible push for independence," says Mr. Shih. " So, obviously, the most visible public event for President Chen to come out on this issue, to reassure the United States, in his presidential inauguration in May, and during his inauguration speech."

Initial results put President Chen's thin margin of victory at only about 29,000 votes, out of a total of more than 13 million ballots cast.

Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says he thinks with the difference between the two candidates that close, calling for a recount is natural. Professor Dittmer just returned from Taiwan, where he had observed votes being counted in the capital, Taipei. He says he saw nothing irregular. "This was in Taipei, of course. It might have been different in southern Taiwan. But they had a monitor there," he says. "Each vote was held up, and they pronounced judgment on it. So, it was very low-tech, very clear and transparent."

Professor Dittmer says if President Chen is certified as the winner and tries to move forward with an independence agenda, this could cause problems in Taipei's ties with Washington. "I think he will move in that direction, and that will cause some friction with the United States, because that will jeopardize relations with China," says Mr. Dittmer. "And the United States considers its relations with China strategically more important than its relations with Taiwan."

Professor Dittmer says a post-election phone call by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to Secretary of State Colin Powell, to urge the United States to do more for cross-straits peace and stability, signals a policy change for Beijing.

"In the past, when they [China] have been unhappy with the way things have been going, they have tried to intercede themselves, directly, with threats or trying to support one candidate or another," says Mr. Dittmer. "But that has always boomeranged on them, that has always back-fired, had counter-productive consequences. And so, this time, they have tried to make an end-run by going to Washington, which is quite a dramatic reversal of previous policy."

Professor Dittmer adds that China previously has denounced any attempts to internationalize the Taiwan issue. "They've said this is a purely Chinese issue, implying that they alone can have any say about what goes on there," he says. "But now, they have taken it to the United States and tried to get the United States [support] - so, they apparently assume that the United States does have greater influence over Taiwan than they do."

Meanwhile, both experts say the U.S. government will be closely watching another major Taiwanese political event this year - legislative elections in December. Currently, pro-Taiwan-independence forces are in the legislative minority.