TAIPEI, Taiwan - In an election that focused world attention on the future of Taiwan, President Lee Teng-hui won a clear-cut victory yesterday that broadcast a single message: There will be no quick reunification with China.
President Lee won 54 percent of the vote in a four-person race whose results were a rebuff to China's government.
China had conducted large-scale military exercises during the past two weeks as a warning to Taiwanese not to support Mr. Lee or candidates wanting the island to declare its independence.
Mr. Lee's share of the votes, added to the 21 percent won by pro-independence candidates, showed three-quarters of the island's voters favoring either outright independence or the president's ambiguous policy of acting independently but holding open the distant possibility of reunification.
For Mr. Lee, the key was to win more than 50 percent.
It was the figure that China hoped he would fail to reach, because any lesser victory would show that he didn't have a majority of the population behind him.
China launched its long series of missile tests and bombing runs in the Taiwan Strait in part to sow doubts about his abilities to deal with Beijing.
Mr. Lee did not dwell on relations with China after the election results became known, instead telling the Taiwanese that they had written a "brilliant page of history" by making Taiwan the first Chinese society to elect its leader democratically.
He only alluded to the crisis with China, giving no clues as to any initiatives.
Vote a 'historic mission'
"At a time when our country is under threat and intimidation, we are able to complete this election successfully because we believe deeply that this is a historic mission," he told supporters outside his campaign headquarters.
"Let me here pay tribute to the millions who are champions of democracy. At the same time, let me swear here solemnly that we will defend forever the road of democracy."
Wei Yung, a member of the Central Committee of President Lee's Nationalist Party, said that Mr. Lee would speak within a few days about relations with China and predicted that he would re-emphasize a commitment to eventual reunification with China.
"The mainland shouldn't think that we're ganging up with Japan and the United States against them. We are Chinese, but we have two competing systems: communism and democracy," Mr. Wei said.
China reacted to Mr. Lee's victory by repeating its criticisms of the elections that they matter little because Mr. Lee is just a local official who runs a part of China, not an independent state.
"Taiwan is an inalienable part of China," the government Xinhua News Agency quoted a senior official as saying.
"Neither the changes in the way in which the Taiwan leaders are produced nor their result can change the fact that Taiwan is a part of China's territory."
China's anger is unlikely to disappear because its top leaders are unwilling to appear weak on a key national issue.
"The results are going to sharpen the crisis inside the Communist Party over its leadership and how to deal with Taiwan," said Jean-Piere Cabestan, director of the Taipei office of the French Research Center on Contemporary China.
"Their policy has suffered a sharp rebuttal."
"The results send a clear message to China that what China tried backfired," said Parris Chang, a member of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
"This was a plebiscite without the name of one, and the people chose against being part of China."
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher expressed satisfaction with the results: "It is my hope that with the Taiwan elections behind us, there will be a lessening of tensions in the area, and we will be able to return to a period in which the main emphasis should be on contacts and discussion between China and Taiwan."
Improving relations may be difficult.
The United States countered China's threat to Taiwan's emerging democracy by deploying two naval battle groups to the area.
But in the process, Washington donned the mantle of Taiwan's protector thereby becoming more involved in one of Asia's longest-running disputes.
Roots in recent history
The crisis has its roots in China's civil war, which the Communists won in 1949.
The losing Nationalist Party fled to the island province of Taiwan with 2 million soldiers and bureaucrats, vowing to return to the mainland and reconquer it.
The Nationalists never returned but have kept reunification a basic, if oft-forgotten, national goal.
Over the years, China and Taiwan have grown apart as China stayed communist and Taiwan matured into a prosperous, democratic state that in all but name is independent of China.
Most people on the island favor holding open the option of reunification until such time as China catches up to their level of political and economic sophistication. A large minority favors formal separation.
China, meanwhile, continues to push for early reunification but short of an invasion, this seems an impossible goal.