TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's president won re-election Saturday, paving the way for a continuation of the China-friendly policies that have delighted Beijing and Washington, and caused consternation among some in Taiwan worried about the durability of their de facto independence.
With about 99 percent of the vote counted, the official Central Election Commission said President Ma Ying-jeou had garnered 51.6 percent of the total against 45.6 percent for Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party. A third candidate, James Soong, once a heavyweight with Ma's Nationalist Party, had 2.8 percent.
Ma's Nationalist Party also retained control of the 113-seat legislature, though with a reduced majority.
Speaking before thousands of jubilant supporters in downtown Taipei, Ma said his China policies had resonated with voters.
"They gave us support for our policy to put aside differences with the mainland. To search for peace and turn it into business opportunities," he said.
Since taking office in May 2008, Ma has tied Taiwan ever closer to China, which for the last 60 years has represented a military threat, a political rival and, most recently, a key commercial partner.
The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and China has never renounced its threat to use military force to bring the democratic island under its control. But over the past several years, and especially since Ma was first elected, tensions have eased considerably amid an upsurge in trade and new transportation and tourist links across the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait.
Ma's re-election will be seen in Beijing as a big victory for President Hu Jintao, who has moved away from China's previous policy of repeatedly threatening the island with war and instead has tried to woo Taiwanese by showing the economic benefits of closer ties.
Still, Hu has funded a wide-ranging military expansion that has made the use of force a more credible option. A Ma defeat would have strengthened military hard-liners just as Hu is preparing to step down to make way for a younger group of leaders.
There was no immediate reaction from Beijing on the election results.
Ma's victory will also be welcomed in Washington, Taiwan's most important security partner despite shifting its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Drastically lowered tensions have substantially reduced the chances that the U.S. will be embroiled in a Taiwan-China conflict at a time when it is trying to repair its economy, steady relations with Beijing and re-engage in East Asia after a decade of preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Beijing, Washington and even Australia will all breathe better with a Ma victory," said Bruce Jacobs, a China expert at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
While there is little appetite in Taiwan for political union with Beijing, a majority of Taiwanese do want to engage the mainland commercially, because they see it as an economic force whose footprint is constantly growing.
Since taking office 3 1/2 years ago, Ma has sanctioned big upsurges in direct flights across the strait, given the green light to accelerated Chinese tourist visits to Taiwan and opened the door to Chinese investment.
His signature achievement was the completion of a China trade deal in June 2010 that lowered tariffs on hundreds of goods. While most of Taiwan's $124 billion worth of exports to China last year were electronic items such as television displays and cellphone chips, there was also a big upsurge in agricultural sales from southern Taiwan, long a stronghold of Tsai's party.
Ma's victory was a bitter blow to Tsai, a 55-year-old London School of Economics Ph.D., who invested great efforts in driving home her message that Ma's policies were not only widening economic inequality but also undermining Taiwan's de facto independence in exchange for economic benefits from China — a claim meant to resonate with her party's pro-independence base.
While the DPP used to push for formal Taiwanese independence, under Tsai it has adopted a more moderate posture, insisting it wants to work with China, though without the same degree of intensity it attributes to Ma.
DPP partisans — and others on the island — worry that closer commercial links with the mainland will force Taiwan into a state of dependency that they fear will make political union inevitable. During the campaign, Ma insisted he has no intention of discussing the sensitive unification issue with Beijing during a second term, but fears of a closer political connection remain intact.
In his acceptance speech, Ma pledged to boost support for poorer Taiwanese and narrow the growing rich-poor divide while reaching out to civil society in making policy.
He promised to seek Taiwanese entry into international economic and cultural organizations from which it is now excluded by Chinese opposition, and to protect Taiwan's sovereignty, security and "the dignity of the Taiwanese people."
A former justice minister and Taipei mayor, Ma won the support of Taiwanese more with his policies than his personality. Low-key and wonkish, the 61-year-old Harvard Law School graduate has sometimes seemed ill at ease in trying to connect with ordinary Taiwanese. But his insistence that his China approach was popular in both Beijing and Washington resonated with voters seeking stability and prosperity in an increasingly globalized world.