Bridge just got started across the strait


HONG KONG — The triumph of Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, candidate in the presidential election in Taiwan brings to an end eight years of rule by the pro-independent Democratic Progressive Party, whose candidate, Frank Hsieh, managed to garner only 41 percent of the vote to 58 percent for Ma.

The outcome was predictable although the margin took many observers by surprise. The DPP resorted to negative campaigning but failed to gather much ammunition to use against Ma, who has a reputation of being “Mr. Clean.”

In addition to accusing him of having divided loyalties because he used to have a U.S. green card, the DPP also accused his wife of having stolen newspapers from the university library when she was a student 30 years ago and alleged that his deceased father had an extramarital affair.

Ma’s victory marks the second transfer of political power since Taiwan became a democracy with the first direct presidential election in 1996. The election results were reported in China and, in time, Taiwan’s democratic development may affect the mainland with people there wondering why Taiwanese can elect their own leaders but mainlanders cannot.

In the shorter term, however, the election result is likely to bring to an end eight years of hostility between the two sides because the incumbent, President Chen Shui-bian, has been seeking de jure independence for Taiwan through such moves as changing names of companies and agencies to get rid of the word “China” and proposing a referendum on whether to apply to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan rather than the Republic of China, the island’s formal name.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who has been openly annoyed with Chen and his political antics since 2003, quickly congratulated Ma on his victory and said the election provided a fresh opportunity for Taiwan and the mainland “to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences.”

The question now is whether the United States will do anything to bolster Ma’s position before his inauguration May 20, so as to strengthen his hand when he deals with Beijing. An invitation to visit Washington would do much to help, since the new leader will not be able to visit once he assumes office.

With the election, the period of “high danger” identified by President Hu Jintao is over. The two referendums on Taiwan’s application to join the U.N. were both defeated and President Chen is due to step down in less than two months.

As it is, the election results show that Taiwanese voters are rational, not emotional. By voting for Ma, they were voting for growth and friendship with Beijing. Attempts by the DPP to invoke the Chinese crackdown in Tibet failed to sway many voters.

In fact, there is no longer any need for China to fear that Taiwan may seek de jure independence. The past eight years have shown that it is a cause without support from the international community and, in fact, from the majority of Taiwan’s population.

This is an opportunity for China to win the minds and hearts of the people of Taiwan. This is the time to agree on such things as direct flights and shipping, tourism and investment, which will enable people on the mainland and on Taiwan to get to know each other better.

Perhaps, at the time of Ma’s inauguration, Beijing can make a dramatic gesture, similar to one it made almost three decades ago when, on the occasion of normalization of Sino-American relations, it announced an end to 20 years of shelling the offshore island of Quemoy.

Now is the time for Beijing to show its good will to the people of Taiwan by getting rid of the thousand or so missiles mounted along the Chinese coast and pointed at the island. After all, China has said repeatedly that its weapons are not to be used against its Taiwan compatriots, but only against those who want to split Taiwan from China.

Now that the splittists have been defeated and are stepping down, there is little reason to continue to hold a gun to Taiwan’s head, especially if the two sides are going to sit down and talk. Who can say that talks are being held on the basis of equality when one side has a gun pointed at the other?

The ball is now in China’s court. Delicacy and finesse are required and Beijing will have to prove that it is up to the task.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (