TAIPEI, Taiwan – Ma Ying-jeou, a smooth Harvard law graduate who advocates better relations with China, was elected president of Taiwan by an overwhelming margin Saturday, opening the prospect of lowered tensions in the volatile Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan’s 17 million eligible voters also roundly defeated a referendum asking whether the government should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan, a measure sponsored by the independence-minded government of President Chen Shui-bian and condemned by the Bush administration as a futile provocation of the mainland.
The results were likely to be greeted with a sigh of relief in Beijing, which claims this self-ruled island as a part of China but is eager to avoid a showdown that could lead to military conflict. They were also seen as welcome news in Washington, which has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself but would be reluctant to confront a crisis in Asia at a time when it is absorbed by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chinese and U.S. officials had grown increasingly impatient with Chen’s single-minded determination through two four-year terms to inch toward formal independence, even at the risk of a reaction from the mainland. To their satisfaction, Ma has declared he will seek instead to prolong the status quo – self-rule, but without formal independence – and concentrate on steps to improve economic, human and diplomatic ties with China.
At a victory news conference, Ma said he would begin to repair relations immediately after taking office May 20, starting with direct charter airline flights, moving on to improved commercial ties and, ultimately, seeking a peace agreement with the mainland. But he warned that the process would not be instantaneous and China would have to do its part.
For instance, Ma specified that any peace accord would require China to remove more than 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan from southern China. That suggested movement from campaign promises to real negotiations and practical agreements with China could be long and difficult.