Taiwan President and Nationalist Party presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, left, who is China’s preferred candidate, has steered a path of warmer ties with the mainland. (Reuters)

Already entangled in territorial disputes with neighbors and facing the announced return of the United States to the region, China’s strategic planners suddenly have a new and unexpected cause for alarm: uncertainty over the outcome of next month’s presidential election in Taiwan.

President Ma Ying-jeou, the Beijing government’s preferred candidate who has steered a path of warmer ties and direct economic links with the mainland, is suddenly in a tough race for reelection, polls from Taiwan show.

Ma’s chief opponent is Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, which officially backs the independence of Taiwan. Tsai has raised the Beijing government’s ire for her refusal to publicly support an informal, unwritten, 20-year-old agreement between the two sides stipulating that there is just “one China.”

For months, the election was expected to hand an easy reelection victory to Ma, from the ­Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, after he steered the island through the worst of the global recession and secured a new trade deal with China. But the race became more unpredictable with the entry last month of a third candidate, James Soong, a former Nationalist Party stalwart who founded the People First Party.

Soong is expected to draw votes from Ma, and polls now suggest a dead heat between Ma and Tsai, who has emphasized economic issues and the gap between rich and poor, as well as the problems of farmers who have not benefited from increased trade with China.

Supporters of Taiwan's ruling Nationalist party wave national and election flags at a rally in Taipei in November. President Ma Ying-jeou is seeking the second and last four-year term on behalf of the ruling Kuomintang. (Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images)

Ma stumbled when he suggested that Taiwan might be ready to sign a peace accord with China within 10 years. He later rolled back the remarks, but the critical response suggested that many Taiwanese saw him as moving too close too quickly to the Communist government in Beijing.

During Ma’s term, relations across the volatile Taiwan Strait have been, as he put it in an interview, “the most stable of anytime in 60 years.” But the prospect that he might lose to a candidate of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party has raised fears among some analysts in China of renewed tension, which might once again draw in the United States. This last happened in 1996, when China fired missiles near Taiwan and the Clinton administration sent additional naval ships to the region as a show of U.S. determination not to allow China to intimidate Taiwan.

Caught off guard

While clearly concerned about the turn of events, Beijing’s authorities seem uncertain how to respond.

Chinese leaders and others on the mainland have made clear their dislike of Tsai’s party and their preference for Ma’s reelection, but they also fear that any blatant interference might create a backlash among Taiwanese voters. That means it is unlikely, in the view of analysts, that China would stage a repeat of the provocative missile tests or the 2000 warning by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who bluntly cautioned Taiwanese not to “vote impulsively.”

One analyst, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said that China’s leaders were most likely caught off guard by the sudden shift in Ma’s fortunes and that the military has probably not set in place a response.

Any sudden move by the Chinese military to prepare for missile tests or other action “would only further raise doubts in the region about Beijing’s intentions,” Cheng said in an e-mail. Given China’s disputes with its neighbors over the territory in the South China Sea and with Japan over the Senkaku islands, Cheng said, “Chinese military assertiveness over Taiwan would allow the U.S. even more opportunity to expand its regional presence and role.”

For the moment, China’s main response appears to be a kind of regional get-out-the-vote effort on Ma’s behalf. That has meant encouraging some of the estimated ­­1 million Taiwanese living and doing business in China to return to Taiwan in time to cast their ballots, presumably for Ma.

The Chinese government association that supports Taiwanese businesses on the mainland announced on its Web site that it had negotiated with the main airlines flying between China and Taiwan to offer heavily discounted tickets for Taiwanese who wanted to fly home between Jan. 1 and the morning of Jan. 14, election day.

Chen Naishu, 38, a Taiwanese coffee shop owner who has lived in Beijing for 11 years, said she bought one of the discounted tickets for 2,280 Chinese renminbi (about $359), or half the normal fare.

“They think the Taiwanese people living on the mainland prefer [the Kuomintang] candidate,” she said. But in a sign of the inherent risk in the strategy, Chen said she would decide whom to vote for only after she studies the candidates’ positions.

In addition, Chinese officials have lately been speaking loudly about the need to maintain the so-called 1992 consensus — the informal agreement from both sides of the Taiwan Strait that there is just “one China.” And some officials and government-affiliated academics have been quietly warning of the calamities that might ensue if Tsai Ing-wen is elected.

Wang Yi, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, the government department that manages relations with Taiwan, used strong language in a speech last month, warning that relations between China and Taiwan would not be permitted to worsen.

“Definitely, cross-strait relations will go backward if Tsai Ing-wen is elected,” said Xu Shiquan, vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies. “The cross-strait relationship will become intense again.”

Risk for Hu

Several analysts said a victory by Tsai would mark a personal setback to Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has made improving relations with Taiwan a key part of his legacy.

Since Ma’s election as Taiwanese president in March 2008, China has opened direct air flights between the mainland and Taiwan, allowed more than 2 million Chinese visitors to travel to Taiwan and signed a trade pact granting both sides tariff-free access to a range of goods. Since Ma took over, China has also stopped its longtime practice of pressuring small countries to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

But observers also said that with China facing its own leadership change in 2012 — with a carefully choreographed transfer to a new generation — the Beijing authorities might be loath to take any steps, including a military confrontation, that might overshadow or disrupt the transition.

“The top leaders don’t want to see any difficulties happening on cross-strait relationships since their term is ending,” said Jin Canrong, a professor of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. “Though they want to do something to influence the ballot, they dare not do anything because they’re afraid it will backfire.”

Jin said the only beneficiary of increased tension across the strait would be the People’s Liberation Army, whose budget could rise along with the likelihood of renewed confrontation.

This year, for the first time, the public budget for China’s domestic security apparatus surpassed that of its armed forces. “So, it might be good news for [the] military if Tsai Ing-wen is elected,” Jin said. “Their importance will be emphasized again.”

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.