TAIPEI - Taiwan's push for independence appears to be heading into deep freeze, and China couldn't be happier.
Taiwanese will elect a president Saturday, and whoever wins will almost certainly move away from the pro-independence policies of outgoing leader Chen Shui-bian.
That's good news for China, which claims the island as part of its territory, and for the United States, which has consistently criticized Chen's stance, fearing it could provoke a war that would draw in the United States.
It's not that independence is such a dirty word for the majority of Taiwan's 23 million people, many of whom have little emotional connection to China - particularly the 70 percent of the population whose ancestors left the country more than 200 years ago.
It's just that many are tired of Chen's pro-independence maneuverings, including a contentious referendum on UN membership for Taiwan that is also on the March 22 ballot. They think the government should focus on the lackluster economy instead. They also take Beijing seriously when it says it would attack if independence were declared.
Chinese leaders have refused to meet with Chen throughout his eight years in office. Three years ago, they even began a historic dialogue with the opposition party, the Kuomintang or Nationalists, their former longtime nemesis.
Now, the Nationalists seem poised to regain power as their candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, rides widespread dissatisfaction with Chen to a clear lead in opinion polls over Frank Hsieh of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.
Hsieh supports the DPP's traditional insistence that Taiwan and China should keep their political separateness, saying that the two sides are far too different for union. But he conspicuously avoids any echo of Chen's pro-independence rhetoric.
Ma has proposed a formal peace treaty with China that would aim to demilitarize the Taiwan Strait, the 100-mile wide waterway that separates the two heavily armed sides. But he, too, has drawn the line at unification, promising that it won't be discussed during his presidency.
Nearly 60 years after Taiwan and China split amid civil war, unification is wildly unpopular on the island.
Though the culture and language are Chinese, Taiwan also has incorporated American, Japanese, and Southeast Asian influences.
And in contrast to China's one-party communist dictatorship, Taiwan has evolved from the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek into a fully functioning democracy - though not without some crisis and confusion.
In Taiwan's first presidential election in 1996, China fired missiles toward Taiwan's coast to signal its displeasure at the poll. The 2000 contest was also sometimes overshadowed by Chinese warnings of attack. In 2004, Chen won narrowly after he was lightly wounded in an election eve shooting - a shooting the Nationalists later charged was staged.
During the last half of his presidency, Chen has worked hard at making the differences with China permanent, scrapping a government body responsible for eventual unification and erasing "China" from a slew of government company names.
He has also said Taiwan should apply for UN membership - a move that both China and the United States have roundly condemned.
The UN initiative is to be judged in a referendum that will appear on the ballot when Taiwanese vote for president.
The issue is moot since China would veto admission to the world body. But Chen's initiative still matters because it signals a clear determination to see the island as a country entirely separate from Beijing.
Hsieh pledges grudging support for the measure, while Ma strongly opposes it.
The front-runner says that rather than engaging in political brinkmanship, Taiwan would be better served trying to stay in the good graces of the world community - particularly the United States - and energizing its sputtering economy.
A huge billboard in the heart of downtown Taipei pictures Ma in a hardhat making ambitious promises: "Annual Growth Rates of more than 6 percent. Unemployment under 3 percent. Per Capita GDP of $30,000." Growth rates under Chen averaged less than 4 percent annually, compared with 6.1 percent in the 1990s, when the Nationalists were in power.
Ma wants more liberal trade arrangements with China.