Four years ago, when Chen Shui-bian was elected Taiwan's president, he promised he would not declare Taiwan independent of China and would not change the country's name (formally, the Republic of China), its flag or its constitution. And he said he would go anywhere, any time, for talks with the Chinese government as long as there were no preconditions. But for four years Beijing has refused to entertain such talks unless Chen agreed that Taiwan was, in effect, a province of the People's Republic of China.
On Saturday, in an extremely close election, Chen was declared the winner of a second term. Though the margin of victory was small, it was several times larger than George W. Bush's in Florida in 2000. However angry and disappointed U.S. Democrats might have been in that 2000 election, they eventually bowed to the declared result. It is a lesson that the opposition in Taiwan, the Nationalist Party, which ruled with an iron hand during the years of martial law military dictatorship, should take to heart, rather than pushing endlessly for a recount of Saturday's vote.
China, too, should accept the results. Back in 2000, when Chen was elected with just 39% in a three-way race, Beijing decided he was a passing phenomenon and that it would wait him out rather than make concessions to him. But now that he has been reelected with more than 51% in an election with 80% turnout, Chinese leaders ought to think again.
Chen's opponent, the Nationalists' Lien Chan, promised during the campaign that he would achieve better relations with Beijing and that if he won he would travel to China. One wonders what he would have traveled as, for Beijing would never have admitted him as president of Taiwan. Better relations would have depended on Lien accepting China's "One China Principle" - there is but one China, Taiwan is a part of it, and its legitimate government is the government in Beijing. But that formula is unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of the island's ethnic Taiwanese, who account for 85% of its population. For any Nationalist Party leader in Taiwan to accept it would bring immediate cries of "sellout," along with civic disorder.
Chen is certainly not going to accept the "One China Principle," and Beijing's leaders know it. That gives them the following options: extend their boycott of Chen for four years, which probably would drive him further toward declaring formal independence, or come up with a more reasonable formula to get discussions going when Chen reiterates his desire for talks. Two years ago, Chen said he was even prepared to talk about eventual political integration - another offer Beijing refused.
Even though there are factions within the Chinese Communist Party leadership that, for political advantage, will criticize anyone who is "soft on Taiwan," it is time for them to rethink their problem. Chen's term expires just before the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Stiffing him again would not make their lives any easier.
Talks without preconditions could lead to more stability than the Taiwan Strait has seen in decades. That basically is what Taiwan's people want. It should be what China's people desire too.
Increasingly, the two sides are economically interdependent. Chen knows this. So do the Communists. It is time for them to drop the Maoist slogan, "Political power comes from the barrel of a gun." It is time for them to talk to Chen and bring an era of joint development to the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Harvey Feldman is a retired U.S. ambassador who was one of the drafters of the Taiwan Relations Act. He is now senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center.
First appeared on Los Angeles Times