Commentary: Why China Is Speaking Softly

Beijing is finding that subtle diplomacy works better than the old saber-rattling

It would be easy to conclude that the unfolding drama in Taiwan is Beijing's worst nightmare. After all, the independence-minded incumbent, Chen Shui-bian, has apparently won the presidential election, and while angry protesters have taken to the streets of Taipei, in the end Beijing will likely have to tolerate its most hated adversary for four more years. First impressions, though, can be deceiving. In fact, the turmoil in Taiwan may ultimately work to Beijing's advantage.

Not surprisingly, Beijing has imposed a virtual blackout on Taiwan news. The mainland press and Web sites have deleted most references to the election and its aftermath. But such precautions are common in Beijing -- and hardly suggest any panic on the part of China's leaders. Indeed, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao seem to be betting that a subtler approach to Taiwan -- including ever-closer economic ties -- is better than the saber-rattling of their predecessors. So while former Premier Zhu Rongji angrily threatened the Taiwanese before their presidential election of 2000 -- warning voters "not to act on their impulses" because they wouldn't "have another opportunity to regret" -- this time Wen promised to "press ahead with an early resumption of dialogue and negotiations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait."

Beijing may already have seen a payoff from its new approach. Chen apparently got just over half the votes for the presidency. But a referendum he backed, asking whether Taiwan should boost its defenses against China, failed because less than 50% of voters cast ballots on the issue, despite an 80% turnout. The referendum, considered a warm-up for an eventual poll on independence, is the one aspect of the Taiwanese election that has gotten some attention on the mainland. "Facts have proven that this illegal act [the referendum] goes against the will of the people," the Taiwan Affairs Office of China's State Council, or Cabinet, said in a statement. If its failure can really be taken as an indication that most Taiwanese oppose independence, "it's good news for the Chinese leadership," says Wang Yong, director of Beijing University's Center for International Political Economy. "It gives them more room to deal with the Taiwan issue."

And even though Beijing hates uncertainty above all else, the leadership there may exploit doubts about the election results for years to come. China now has an excuse to question Chen's mandate, and this may force Chen to strike a more conciliatory posture toward the mainland to lessen post-election tensions. Furthermore, the turbulence over the election hardly gives democracy a good name, even among Chinese citizens, many of whom have long been skeptical of Taiwan's volatile -- and sometimes violent -- political system.

Despite China's antipathy, Chen's apparent victory won't mean an end to the deepening economic ties between the two sides even if political relations remain cool. During Chen's four years in office, China has become Taiwan's No. 1 export market. And more than 60% of Taiwan's technology production is now on the mainland, a level of integration that gives China tremendous leverage over the island, says Andy Rothman of brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Shanghai. "If Hu Jintao had been able to vote, he would have chosen Chen," says Rothman.

Beijing knows that the White House is less than thrilled with Chen, so mainland leaders might try to use the situation to move closer to Washington. On the day after the election, China's Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, called Secretary of State Colin Powell asking the U.S. to "do more to contribute to the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait." A nice exchange -- and not too encouraging for Chen, who must rely on the U.S. for support in any ultimate showdown with Beijing.

So for China's shrewd practitioners of realpolitik, things could be much worse. The challenge is to keep Chen weak without provoking him into doing something rash -- like making a sprint for independence. Then, of course, China would have to do something nasty. "Chinese leaders would even sacrifice the [2008 Beijing] Olympics [by going to war] if it meant keeping Taiwan," says Cheng Li, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. As the drama unfolds in Taiwan, China is largely silent. But it's watching. And waiting.

By Dexter Roberts

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