China's leaders may be forced to reassess their strategy towards Taiwan following President Lee Teng-hui's sweeping victory in the island's first democratic presidential election. A key indication of whether tensions will ease could come over the next few weeks with a decision by Peking to halt its threatening military exercises.
Mr Lee, the candidate of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, won 54 per cent of the vote on Saturday, higher than predicted. Many analysts in Taipei believe China's belligerent tactics, aimed at reducing Mr Lee's vote, added as much as 10 per cent to his tally. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's candidate, Dr Peng Ming-min, came second with 21 per cent.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the French Research Centre on Contemporary China, in Taipei, said: "Seventy-five per cent of people who voted refused not only reunification with China in the near future, but also refused to give in to China." Mr Lee has described reunification as an "ultimate goal", but not until the mainland becomes democratic. Ever since his trip to the United States last June, Peking has accused Mr Lee of secretly working for Taiwan's independence.
The most pro-reunification candidate in the election, Lin Yang-kang, won only 15 per cent. Voter turn-out was high at 76 per cent.
Mr Lee publicly set himself a target of winning more than 50 per cent, in order to strengthen his hand against Peking.
China's missile tests and military exercises in the seas near Taiwan not only helped Mr Lee win votes, but also prompted the United States to send two aircraft carriers into the region.
The confrontation focused world attention on Taiwan's emergence as a democratic state. Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, said: "The [election] result has humiliated the Chinese government. The ball is in the Chinese court now."
The Chinese army, navy and aircraft exercises in the Taiwan Strait is due to finish today. Before the election, there were reports that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) planned further military drills. One test of whether there has been a reassessment of policy will be whether any new exercises are announced.
Peking's initial reaction to the election results was to claim that in spite of Mr Lee's landslide victory, China had "dealt a heavy blow to the Taiwan independence and separatist forces".
Only hours earlier, China had been accusing Mr Lee of pushing Taiwan into an "abyss of misery" with his pro-independence stance. By yesterday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang, had told World Television News: "From our side we believe the door to negotiation is still open." But this, he warned, depended on Taiwan's authorities giving up "their pursuit of two Chinas".
In Taipei, Mr Lee yesterday ruled out compromise over seeking a greater international voice for Taiwan on the world stage, although the policy has enraged Peking.
Taiwan would continue "pursuing national dignity and firmly establishing our international place", he told a reception for overseas Taiwanese. However, the Prime Minister, Lien Chan, repeated recent comments that Taiwan was "interested in thinking seriously" about a peace agreement with the mainland.
Bolstered by his popular mandate, Mr Lee will press for a dialogue between Taipei and Peking to resume. Dr Cabestan said: "I think President Lee is in a more comfortable position now. He may be tempted to take a few initiatives, to show his benevolence towards mainland China." Government officials point to possible concessions on air and postal links with the mainland, which Peking badly wants.
The Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, will have to decide how much room he has for manoeuvre. The failure of Peking's tactics has increased the pressure on Mr Jiang, whose leadership credentials for the post-Deng Xiaoping era are being tested by the Taiwan issue. A year ago, Mr Jiang took the initiative over Taiwan by announcing an "Eight-Point Plan" for eventual reunification. The Chinese military, whose support would be crucial in a leadership battle, denounced the plan as too conciliatory. Mr Jiang swiftly changed tack. For the past 10 months, China's generals have driven a hardline strategy of military intimidation and threats to use force if Taiwan declares independence.
The question now is who controls Peking's Taiwan policy in the wake of the election. Mr Jiang has been silent recently, as the crisis unfolded. Yves Nallet, a Sinologist at China News Analysis, said: "Is President Jiang going to speak now, or not? If he speaks, it could prove that he is still in charge of policy. If he does not speak, it means that probably there is a split, or the hardliners are in control."
The role of the US in the crisis will be crucial. Peking was surprised by the strength of the US reaction to China's sabre-rattling. This week, Washington will have to decide whether the US carrier, Nimitz, will pass through the Taiwan Strait. China's Prime Minister, Li Peng, last week warned a show of force in the Strait would make the situation "all the more complicated". The US has not said what route the Nimitz will take. Analysts fear an aggressive stance will play into the hands of Peking's hardliners.