The distance between mainland China and the Island of Taiwan is only about 80 miles. If measured by the political stands of the countries' leaderships and the aspirations of the people, however, the distance is much greater than it appears. But now, more than ever, throughout the 51 years of split and turmoil, the two countries' relationship is taking another sharp turn, for the worse, that is. The conflict that might be re-provoked is one of great importance to the US, who finds it difficult to achieve a win-win situation, to save its interests and to protect its allies.
Taiwan's president Lee Teng Hui, who ruled for 12 years and with a term ending in May, was not the first to antagonize Beijing with his tendency to declare a formal independence for the relatively small island. Yet Lee was yet the most successful in angering the Chinese government, who took him more seriously that other Taiwanese leaders who repeated similar rhetoric. The political storm gathered as a result of Lee's independence calls was followed by a massive earthquake which claimed the lives of over 2300 in September, 1999. Likely, the depth of the tragedy helped to refocus attention on other matters.
Strangely enough, despite the continuous threats of war and invasion, trade, indirect and direct economic cooperation between the two rose extensively during the 1990's. It was clear that both governments were sucked into the spirit of market and trade, for they somehow maintained their political disputes, and at the same time pushed for further imports and exports.
The United States, who tends to appreciate the clear-cut categorization of its ties with other countries as enemy or friend, was forced to alternate such an approach to one of greater compatibility with this issue. Although the US remains a primary backer of Taiwan, even after the 1978 recognition of China at Taiwan's' expense, its need for trade with the emerging Chinese economy is increasingly pressuring it to soften its anti-communist outlook.
Although there are ambiguous relations between China and Taiwan, between the US and both nations, a greater acceptance and acquaintance of the status quo is slowly forming. Taiwan was the first to come to terms with the situation, after the Nationalist Party, which ruled for half a century, saw that independent Taiwan is a much better option for the country, instead of any form of reunification with China. Becoming one of the world's strongest economies, it appeared of no benefit for the two countries to merge. Thus, while Taiwan's fear was losing its freedom of choice and semi-sovereignty, it grew wary of losing its high GDP and luxurious way of life.
Concurrently, China never lost its sight of reunification, especially after the great uplift provided by the return of Hong Kong in 1997. Though aware of the need to maintain a friendly image as a major trade partner and a true seeker of WTO membership, China found no space for compromise in a matter of pride and integrity.
Prior to last Saturday's elections, it was not expected to see President Lee promoting his Vice President to follow him as he retires in May, by saying that the opposition's main candidates, Chen Shiu-bian is likely to spark war with China. Chen who eventually won the Saturday election was simply repeating Lee's own stand on the issue of Taiwan's' formal independence.
The three-way elections were the second direct elections in the history of Taiwan, which was mainly dominated by the fleeing Kuomintang supporters after losing power to communist forces. While such a fresh democracy was endangered by its lack of experience, the ruling nationalist party was wrecked by fragmentation. The third runner, beside Chen and Vice President Lien Chan, James Soong was considered the party's celebrity before he was expelled for refusing to endorse the party's candidate, Chan, for presidency. Soong who battled in the elections alone as an independent candidate emerged with 37 percent of the total vote, only two percent below the winner, Chen.
The picture of Taiwanese politics is looking more disturbed than ever before. The small island is now faced with two hurricanes, and their incoming is imminent. The first is China's reaction to the victory of the pro-independence President, Chen. China's Premier Zhu Rongji threatened to invade Taiwan if the people made such a mistake and elected Chen. Likely, China's threat backfired for it gathered more youth support around the opposition. How will China react is still unknown. The other challenge is the future of the Taiwanese Nationalist Party. Peoples' anger was already visible through violent demonstrations, demanding the resignation of President Lee as the head of the party. Lee quickly fell under pressure and granted the people their wish. Such a conclusion, however says very little about the future of the party, as well as the future of Taiwanese internal politics in the years to come.
Ramzy Baroud is a regular columnist with iviews.com