TAIPEI - Voters rejected China's attempts at military intimidation and handed a landslide victory to incumbent President Lee Teng-hui yesterday in an election that completed Taiwan's transition from dictatorship to democracy and underlined its differences with Beijing.
After final results were tallied, 54 percent of the nearly 11 million Taiwanese who cast ballots had voted for Lee, who has sought to raise Taiwan's global profile even at the risk of antagonizing Beijing.
His tally was more than double that of his closest challenger in a field of four candidates.
The outcome marked a clear setback for China's Communist leaders. They had mounted a campaign of missile tests and war games in the month leading up to the vote - actions designed to discourage support for Taiwanese sovereignty and remind the world of their stand that the 13,500-square-mile island is only a renegade Chinese province.
The resulting tensions caused the Clinton administration to send two aircraft-carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan to signal to China that it should not interfere in Taiwan's democratic process.
The disposition of American warships after the election remained an open question.
A strong sense of crisis over the military exercises apparently caused significant numbers of voters to defect from Taiwan's largest opposition group, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, to Lee's camp.
Some analysts said the true measure of Taiwan's rebuke to Beijing's Communist Party leadership could be seen by adding Lee's votes to those won by pro-independence candidate Peng Ming-min, who came in second with 21 percent of the vote. Together, they won 75 percent of the votes cast.
But in Beijing, the official New China News Agency portrayed the results as a sign that voters oppose separating Taiwan from the mainland.
Lee had said before the vote that the next president's main job would be to work on cross-strait relations, and many analysts took that to mean that Lee was preparing a post-election effort to cool tensions.
NO CLUES ON STRATEGY
But the 73-year-old leader has given no clue whether he is willing to make substantive concessions, such as moderating Taiwan's drive for a seat at the United Nations. Beijing considers that effort to be part of an unacceptable "two China" strategy.
The Chinese government promptly declared that the outcome did not alter its stance on Taiwan.
"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," the New China News Agency quoted a senior official of the government's Taiwan Affairs Office as saying.
In Washington, a White House statement said: "We congratulate the people of Taiwan on their first election. They have made great strides in the past several years toward democracy. We hope to see tensions in the Taiwan Strait greatly reduced in the days to come."
With the election's results in hand, some analysts are predicting a serious policy review within the Chinese leadership and a possible reshuffle to remove those responsible for the failed attempt to intimidate Taiwan militarily. Others raised the possibility of a further military escalation.
BEIJING `LOSES FACE'
"This is very, very difficult for China now," said Andrew Yang of the Chinese Center for Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank here. "The setback for China's tactics loses them great face. The leadership is very humiliated."
"The question is whether they resort to more harsh measures toward Taiwan or accept their humiliation and come up with some consolation," Yang said. "It's up to Beijing to do some soul-searching now, to see if they are going to do more intimidation, or try to figure out a way to compromise."
China tried until the last minute to sway the election's outcome. Earlier yesterday, the official news agency unleashed new invective against Lee, accusing him of taking Taiwan to the "abyss of misery," while Chinese radio broadcasts aimed here called Lee a "puppet" of the United States.
Parris Chang, a prominent member of Peng's party who runs a think tank called the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies, said, "The unmistakable message is that the people don't want reunification with China."
"China's actions have backfired on so many different fronts - not only its relations with Taiwan, but diplomatically," Chang said. "They really have a talent for making mistakes. I hope they learn their lesson from this. They lost a lot of face."
Much now will depend on what Lee chooses to do with his mandate, observers and analysts said. His resounding victory vindicates his past policies, including the diplomatic outreach efforts aimed at ending this island's isolation.
Some analysts thought Lee might feel flexible enough to be magnanimous in victory, perhaps making some major conciliatory gesture toward Beijing, such as offering direct transportation links or the first government-to-government contacts across the 115-mile strait.
ELECTION MADE HISTORY
Often lost amid Beijing's attempts at intimidation was the drama of Taiwan emerging from four decades of martial law and single-party rule to become one of Asia's liveliest democracies.
Many Taiwanese seemed glad simply to have participated in this landmark exercise - billed as the first time a Chinese society has democratically elected its leader. Even the losers and their supporters graciously accepted defeat and called the vote a victory for Taiwan's long process of democratization.
One young man at Lee's victory rally told a reporter, "We are very proud. Even though I didn't vote for Lee Teng-hui, I am proud of our democracy."
The election was cheered in other parts of the region.
"This is a proud day for all Chinese people around the world," said Martin Lee, head of Hong Kong's Democratic Party. "It is the first time in China's history that a leader is elected on a one-person, one-vote basis on Chinese soil."
------------------------------------------------------------------ Information from the New York Times and the Washington Post is included in this report. ------------------------------------------------------------------