( AFP )- President George W. Bush welcomed the victory of Taiwan's presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday as a "fresh opportunity" for Taipei and China to resolve their differences peacefully.
The Bush administration and China had been closely watching the election, hoping to see a new approach on the island after eight years of friction with outgoing pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian.
Bush congratulated Ma, the opposition candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, and reaffirmed Washington's "one China" policy of recognizing Beijing as the sovereign government.
"It falls to Taiwan and Beijing to build the essential foundations for peace and stability by pursuing dialogue through all available means and refraining from unilateral steps that would alter the cross-Strait situation," Bush said.
"I believe the election provides a fresh opportunity for both sides to reach out and engage one another in peacefully resolving their differences," he said in a statement.
The US State Department described the election as "free and fair" and a "milestone" for Taiwan.
"We look forward to working with Taiwan's new leaders to ensure that the vibrancy in our economic and people-to-people relationship is maintained," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
Ma, who takes over on May 20, wants much closer ties with China and was seen as more Beijing-friendly than his election rival, Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
But both candidates have said reunification was not up for discussion.
Washington would have been happy with either candidate after the headaches Chen caused to the Bush administration.
Chen had earned the ire of both Beijing and Washington for his string of controversial policies, especially his decision to hold a referendum alongside the presidential polls on whether the island should seek United Nations membership under the name of Taiwan.
Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 after the Kuomintang lost a civil war to the communists. China views the island as rebel territory and has threatened to retake it by force if Taiwan were to formally declare independence.
Any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would raise the prospect of a Sino-American war, potentially even a nuclear war, because US law compels Washington to come to the aid of Taiwan if its security is threatened.
Taiwan, under its official name the Republic of China, lost its UN seat to the mainland in 1971 and is now only recognized diplomatically by around 20 countries.
Beijing considers attempts to rejoin the UN using its official title as pushing for independence.
Richard Bush, former de facto US ambassador to Taipei, said before the election that the winner would help end the recent "strategic divergence" between Taiwan and the United States.
"We could have more confidence about the basic intentions of the new Taiwan government -- whoever led it -- that it was going to be more consistent with ours," said the former diplomat, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution.
The US military was also looking forward to the election, with the top commander of US troops in Asia, Admiral Timothy Keating, saying recently he was "cautiously optimistic that a little bit of steam will leave the kettle" after the polls.
Although policy decisions that both candidates took gave an opportunity for mending US-Taiwan ties, Randy Schriver, a former senior State Department official, said it was "too soon to say that problems will be solved and difficulties will be ended."
But more importantly, Schriver said, the elections would provide an opportunity for the United States to pursue a "more balanced policy" with Taiwan, a key ally in Asia.
"I think we have been overly solicitous of China's concerns and too much of their bidding here and we have contributed to this souring of Taiwan-US relations on a level just about equal to what problems emanated from Taiwan," he said before the election.
"Overall we lost a perspective that this is a young democracy."