Friday, December 7, 2007

Is the US a Crying Wolf on Taiwan Referendum?

In November 2003, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan adopted the Referendum Law and rejected the Executive Yuan from initiating a consultative referendum on three major issues: the downsizing of the number of Legislators, the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant, and the World Health Organization membership. Immediately after the passage of this legislation, President Chen Shui-bian decided to hold the defensive referendum based on Article 17 of the Referendum Law. Ten days later in the White House, President Bush condemned Chen’s action by stating that the US opposed the actions. These remarks created domestic fuss and stirred already tension-prone cross-Strait relations.

Some American scholars of China Studies believed that President Bush was right in employing preventive diplomacy to preclude President Chen from crossing the brink in the later design of questions in the defensive referendum. However, some circles in Taiwan together with some members in the US Congress argued that the US overreacted to Taiwan’s first-ever defensive referendum. In 2004, only 45% of the voters cast their votes on whether Taiwan should increase its missile equipment and conduct negotiations with the PRC. The turnout rate was 5% short of being considered a valid referendum. The vote has never been interpreted as a vote on Taiwan independence. Unfortunately, US Pentagon’s press release misperceived 2008 referendum on Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations as a referendum on Taiwan independence. Only after Taipei’s protest did the Pentagon amend the coverage on the website.

It was not Beijing’s coercive actions that prevented voters from casting the vote on defensive referendum; it was partisan politics which sabotaged the first nation-wide referendum. For example, the Patriot III missiles package was obstructed by the KMT simply because it was legally bound by the referendum outcome in March 2004. Even after three years of blockage, the Kuomintang (KMT) continued to boycott the purchase of Patriot III missiles and only agreed to upgrade the existing PAC-2 in June 2007.

The DPP and the KMT have antagonized each other in almost every public policy. Only on a rare occasion would these two political parties coincide with each other, such as the United Nations (UN) issue, simply with an aim of gaining support from the voters. The UN referendum issue in Taiwan is not about the name of Taiwan, but the frustration in its inability to participate in the UN or other international organizations. This angst garners support within the island regardless of their backgrounds and rally together to appeal for international recognition. It is absurd to prohibit the people of Taiwan to use the very name that foreigners recognize them as.
There are many countries which are known not for its official title. For example, one would call Greece rather than Hellenic Republic and call Switzerland rather than Swiss Confederation. Among the public opinion polls conducted in Taiwan, more than 70% of the people agreed to use the name, Taiwan, to apply for UN membership. The Bush administration should have a second thought before responding to Taiwan’s moves.

The Bush administration has every right to express its concerns about the possible ramifications of Taiwan’s UN referendum. However, Washington should not dictate what actions Taipei should or could adopt. Taiwan has long regarded the US as the friendliest country; Taiwan practice the US democratic ways in daily operations of government, but Taiwan has been repeatedly stabbed behind the back by the US. On October 25, 2004, US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that Taiwan could not enjoy sovereignty as a nation. Then, Dennis Wilder of National Security Council stated in August 2007 that neither Taiwan nor the ROC is a sovereign state, despite knowing the fact that Taiwan still enjoys diplomatic ties with 24 countries. What worsens the situation is that Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, aligned with Beijing’s stance, and prematurely argued that the UN referendum in Taiwan is a critical step toward Taiwan independence. Some of these statements are a repeat of Secretary Powell’s misspoken episode in October 2004, in which he later clarified that the US policy is based on peaceful resolution of cross-Strait disputes instead of peaceful reunification of Taiwan and China.

While the PRC is nervous about Taiwanese referendum, it is Taipei’s staunch supporter, the US, who exerted pressure on Taipei’s move to conduct the referendum. This attitude might contradict America’s longstanding endorsement of the universality of human rights. Nevertheless, one might argue Washington adheres to its national interest. Taiwan is not expecting the US to wholeheartedly support the island in every domestic move in deepening its democratic foundation. No president in Taiwan is able to dictate the future without the approval of people on Taiwan. President Chen was not popular in many ways but he deserves high regards in placing the UN issue in front of voters on the same day of presidential election.

The outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election is far from predictable, but the KMT will tell its supporter not to cast votes on UN referendum under the name of Taiwan, which it interprets as a referendum towards independence. The KMT has its own version of the UN referendum but people know that it is also difficult to return to the UN under the name of ROC let alone in the capacity of a new membership. If there is a split vote on these two UN referendum version and presidential candidates, the most likely outcome is that neither will pass. Even before the process of UN referendum is finalized by the Central Election Commission, the US government officials such as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Christensen, and AIT Taipei director, Stephen Young, have repeatedly appealed to Taiwanese voters that it is in Taiwan’s interest to prevent the referendum from taking place in the first place and once it is put on the ballot then vote against it.

The Bush administration is punishing President Chen Shui-bian through various channels. For instance, Washington blocked an early approval of the F16 sales to Taiwan even though defense appropriations were approved by the Legislative Yuan in June 2007. Although the Bush administration announced the sales of surface-to-surface Standard Block-III missiles and upgraded equipments of Patriot II surface-to-air missiles to Taiwan, these two sales were approved long before the UN referendum episode.

The Bush administration has shown its displeasure in the logistics arrangement of President Chen’s transit stop in the US in September 2007 on his way to Central America. Stephen Young even told the audience in Taipei that “there is a price to be paid in mutual trust” between Taipei and Washington. Although the UN referendum plan has provoked criticism from the US, it will not bring a structural change to US-Taiwan relations in the long term. President Chen is prepared to step down on May 20, 2008 and the US is ready to cooperate with the new Taiwan president as long as he is duly elected. Even President Hu Jintao in his mid-October political report of 17th Party Congress signaled that he is ready to achieve a peace agreement with Taiwan under the one China principle and suspends words of intimidations on Taiwan’s UN referendum. .

The US cares about Taiwan’s national security, but it has no intention of assisting Taiwan in expanding its room for diplomatic maneuvering. China always thinks it represents Taiwan internationally. Given this, Taiwan has to create its own path; otherwise, it will eventually be marginalized or downgraded into a part of PRC’s territory. For the US, an overreaction on Taiwan’s UN referendum will be suspected as collaborating with Beijing in jointly suppressing Taiwan’s international space, even though no one in Taiwan would claim that their endeavors will succeed in the UN referendum, let alone realizing UN membership for Taiwan in the near future.

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