Change in Taiwan


A political earthquake with potentially grave regional repercussions has taken place in Taiwan with the election of Mr Chen Shi-bian as president. He represents the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and owes his election to a split in the ranks of the Nationalists who have ruled the island since they came there in 1949 after their defeat in the Chinese civil war. Their removal from office is as important an event as the coming to power of a man who has rejected the "one country two systems" formula laid down by successive Chinese governments, which regard Taiwan as a renegade province.

Mr Chen owes his popularity as much to his attacks on the corruption associated with the Nationalists and his honourable political record as mayor of Taipei as to his policy towards China. His victory represents a major shift in Taiwan's politics. Yesterday the outgoing President Lee Teng-hui was attacked by fellow-Nationalist demonstrators who suspect he secretly supported Mr Chen's election by encouraging a weak candidate to stand for his own party. Another candidate, Mr James Soong, broke away from the party to stand and ran Mr Chen a close second. Yesterday he announced he is to set up his own organisation.

One way or another, therefore, it is the end of an era. Mr Chen will have a major task securing the loyalty of officials, bureaucracies and judges packed with Nationalist party supporters. They would be well advised to co-operate with him. He has an impressive democratic mandate and has signalled a desire to work with political opponents through a difficult period of transition.

The first reactions from China to Mr Chen's election were cautious and low key - in sharp contrast to the sharp rhetoric before the election which warned Taiwanese voters not to support him. It looks as if this was perceived as bullying tactics by many voters, in which case they have rebounded with potentially major loss of face for Beijing. That creates a highly-charged situation requiring very delicate handling by Mr Chen, the Chinese leadership and other regional players, including the United States. Beijing has made it quite clear how seriously it takes the prospect of undue delay in holding unification talks by publishing a white paper last month saying it would use force if necessary. Nationalist sentiment has been mobilised on the mainland.

In recent interviews, Mr Chen has been anxious not to provoke Beijing. He says he will not hold a referendum on independence or write the policy into the constitution. He has called for a dialogue on improving relations and appeals to other Taiwanese leaders to support him. There was substantial agreement among all the candidates on relations with China during the campaign. This reflects the developing sense of a Taiwanese identity among its population as its democracy matures.

It is very much to be hoped China's leaders can summon up the courage and wisdom to reciprocate Mr Chen's willingness to promote friendly dialogue without insisting that he first accept their "One China" policy. The alternative - of confrontation and war - would be disastrous for both states and the wider Asian region.