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Asiaweek Pictures
Allen C. Choate is director of program development for The Asia Foundation in Hong Kong

In China's Interest
A democratic Taiwan could be a flexible negotiator By ALLEN C. CHOATE

The conventional wisdom on the cross-strait issue is that the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election - and the dramatic manifestations of greater democracy - make a resolution of the problem even more difficult. In fact, the opposite may be true. Beijing could well find that a more democratic Taiwan is a more imaginative and flexible negotiating partner.

Virtually all competitive democratic political parties are essentially centrist and tend toward consensus-building in order to get the votes they need. In the Taiwan election campaign all three major candidates edged toward the moderate center and away from Lee Teng-hui's "two states" position. The election results revealed a strong, widespread consensus not for independence or greater distance from the mainland, but for the "status quo plus." That is, the majority of voters seem prepared to accept some mutually face-saving, to-be-defined concept of "one China," with secure arrangements for autonomy and formal international status.

Voting analyses and surveys done before and after the election confirm that the very large majority of the public on the island do not yearn for independence. They would like the cross-strait problem to simply go away, and are willing to entertain new ideas about how that might happen.

President-elect Chen Shui-bian has demonstrated his awareness of this broad public opinion by holding out a number of olive branches to the mainland. They include his intent to open direct trade and transport links across the Taiwan Strait, his willingness to "discuss" - on the mainland - "one China," his invitation to Wang Daohan, the mainland's elder statesman on Taiwan affairs, to attend his May inauguration, and repeated statements that he does not intend to declare independence, call for a referendum on it, or change the name of the Republic of China.

Of course, all of these initiatives still are not sufficient for Beijing, which has a consistent and adamant bottom line of Taiwan's accepting the "one China" principle before starting talks on their future association. Make no mistake: the post-election mood in Beijing is even more determined on this acceptance. For now, though, Beijing has wisely chosen to take a quite muted and watchful attitude, awaiting actions and comments by Taipei during the next two months.

Fortunately, democratic politics normally are characterized by pragmatism and compromise, not ideology. Thus Chen, fully recognizing the prevailing public opinion, and also aware that he is a minority president who is regarded skeptically by many, has spent the last two weeks trying to prove his flexibility on relations with the mainland. His appointment of a respected mainlander and Kuomintang loyalist as premier, his plan to form an all-party council on mainland relations policy, his resignation from leadership posts in the Democratic Progressive Party, and the promise of the DPP not to interfere or attempt to influence government all demonstrate that pragmatism and recognition of political reality.

Since the election, all the major parties have expressed their intent to focus primarily and heavily on party and government reform. In fact, the mandate of the electorate is an overwhelming one for honest government and reform in public affairs, and it is this mandate that Chen is both expected to carry out and wishes to execute. The KMT has begun its own internal reform and democratizing process, and the popular James Soong has started building a new political party, again on appeals to reform. During this coming period of reform and democratic restructuring, Taiwan's various political leaders would prefer not to be distracted from these domestic tasks by offshore anxieties. The preoccupation with domestic reform, increased democracy and partisan realignment will continue for some time.

The emergent features of Taiwan politics will offer a more receptive audience for new suggestions by Beijing about how to approach a mutually palatable "one China" agreement. Today's "New Taiwanese" (a term that resonates among the population and ironically was first coined by President Lee) is above all a believer in democracy and civil rights. The Chinese government's future messages will need to take cognizance of that to be effective.

Any recent visitor to Beijing comes away convinced that it is grimly serious about the option of war to prevent any move toward Taiwan independence. There also appears to be an unsettling lack of available knowledge about the island's domestic politics, which is exacerbated by the withholding of news about Chen's efforts to reach out to the mainland. But there also is a new and genuine curiosity about what is happening on the island. That studious attention and apparent willingness to reserve judgment for at least a couple of months should provide the time for Beijing to see that the independence threat has receded. When it does, Beijing can begin to suggest ways to reassure Taiwan on the preservation of its political system and values.

But that is the long game. The short game must be a pragmatic and low-key search for a mutually acceptable "one China" formula. The democratic dynamics of the new Taiwan can be of help in that search.

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