Why Anger The Dragon?

Ken Wen, 60, is fed up with Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian. Wen, a home builder, voted for Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) back in 2000. In so doing, he helped end the 50-year rule of the Kuomintang, which has traditionally opposed independence from China. But now, after eight years of corruption scandals, cross-strait tensions and poor economic performance, Wen says it's time for another change. At a rally in the port city of Keelung last week, he said he planned to vote for the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou for president on March 22, hoping Ma will boost Taiwan's stagnant economy by strengthening links with China. "If we don't open up more, we're finished," Wen says.

That's a common view in Taiwan these days. In fact, both candidates in the upcoming vote—Ma and his DPP challenger, Frank Hsieh—have promised to open Taiwan's economy to the giant next door and to take a more moderate tone with Beijing. But if the front-runner Ma, who is Hong Kong-born, triumphs over native son Hsieh, the voters' message will be especially clear. Ordinary Taiwanese will have rejected Chen's confrontational tactics: a victory not just for moderates like Ma, but also for Chinese President Hu Jintao, who's taken a more restrained approach to the island in recent years. And by electing the first mainland-born leader since the end of Taiwan's authoritarian era 20 years ago, locals will also have stepped away from the identity politics that have long divided this island.

As all this suggests, a Ma victory would have far-reaching implications. First, of course, it would cool off one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints, the one place that could actually spark a war between China and the United States. (Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened force if the island makes a permanent break; Washington has pledged to help its democratic ally if attacked).

Since 2000, China and Taiwan have been locked in a vicious circle: Beijing has refused to deal with the island's pro-independence government, and Chen has inflamed tensions by loudly trumpeting the island's sovereignty. But Ma wants to break this cycle with expanded economic links and engagement with Beijing. His pledges include the opening of direct cross-strait flights by May 2009 (travelers currently must touch down in a third location, adding several hours to trips), lifting caps on China-bound investment (helping Taiwan firms better tap the mainland market), allowing more Chinese tourists to visit the island (they're currently limited to 1,000 a day) and opening Taiwan's economy to more Chinese investment. "There's no need to antagonize the dragon," Ma adviser Su Chi put it in an interview in January. His boss has even proposed to restart political talks with Beijing, which have been suspended since 1999.

Oh, and then there's the pandas. Unlike Chen, Ma has said he'd accept China's standing offer of two of the cuddly bears (the pair are currently cooling their paws in Sichuan).

But is Taiwan ready to put a panda-hugger in office? Despite Ma's lead in the polls, he's not yet a shoo-in. Pro-independence sentiment and Taiwan pride remain near record highs; 21 percent of islanders back full independence and 44 percent identify themselves as Taiwanese only, according to recent survey data. As a mainlander, Ma remains vulnerable to attacks on his patriotism; if elected, he'd be first the non-local-born president since the autocrat Chiang Ching-kuo (who was Chiang Kai-Shek's son) died 20 years ago. Some Taiwanese say they still won't vote for a mainlander, and fear a Ma victory could usher in a return to KMT authoritarianism.

The DPP's Hsieh has tried to stoke such fears with negative attacks, portraying Ma as disloyal to Taiwan. But there are signs that the identity card is waning in force. After eight years of misrule by the local-born Chen, many Taiwanese are simply sick of him and his party. Restrictions on cross-strait investment and travel have hindered Taiwanese firms' ability to cash in on China's boom, and Chen's inflammatory moves—such as his recent plan to hold a referendum on rejoining the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" (as opposed to the "Republic of China")—have strained relations with Beijing and Washington to the limit. With incomes stagnant and inflation on the rise, even many DPP supporters are now ready to jump ship. Wang Cheng-kun, the director of the doctors' association in Tainan, a DPP stronghold, recently endorsed Ma, in part because he was put off by what he saw as Hsieh's smear attacks and fearmongering. Wang also says he admires Ma's clean character and more-global outlook. "I've always been a [DPP] supporter, and I was afraid my friends wouldn't forgive me for my change of heart," Wang said. "But Taiwan must internationalize; we shouldn't isolate ourselves."

As well as a victory for Ma, a KMT win would also represent a triumph for China's President Hu. In years past, Beijing repeatedly drove islanders into the independence camp with its fiery rhetoric and ham-handed military threats. But in the past five years, it has adopted a much more nuanced strategy. "Under Hu's leadership, Beijing's approach has become more patient, less inclined to saber-rattling, and more self-restrained," wrote cross-strait security expert Lin Chong-pin in a recent essay. True, China has ratcheted up the threats against Chen and other pro-independence diehards. But it's also launched a charm offensive targeting both the KMT leadership and the DPP's base. One recent carrot: a relaxation of restrictions on Taiwanese doctors—a traditional pillar of DPP support—working on the mainland. And on March 4, Hu repeated his offer for peace talks with Taiwan under the "one China" condition, even offering to meet those who'd backed independence in the past if they moderated their views.

Such overtures appear to be paying off; it's harder for pro-independence politicians like Hsieh to whip up anti-China sentiment while Beijing holds out olive branches. Still, a Ma victory wouldn't end cross-strait tensions entirely. As president, he would have to avoid looking like a sellout to the 77 percent of islanders who still favor some sort of independence from Beijing or the political status quo. "Ma [must] take a slow, gentle pace in improving cross-strait relations," says political analyst Liao Da-chi. "I don't think there will be a dramatic change—each side will be very cautious."

What this means is that Ma is likely to emphasize the strengthening of economic links. A major political breakthrough remains unlikely: Ma himself has said it probably won't occur in his lifetime. At most, Beijing and Taipei will put aside, rather than resolve, the thorny issue of Taiwan's permanent status. So the island will remain in limbo, a territory claimed by China but effectively independent. Yet like it or not, Taiwan's and China's economies are now connected at the hip—giving both sides a strong incentive for warmer relations. In that sense, it's good news that both Ma and Hsieh have pledged to take an open-minded approach to Beijing. Whoever wins, pragmatism has already triumphed.