Taiwan: Support Democracy, not Referendums
Alan D. Romberg (Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center)
Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is in a tight race for reelection on March 20. In part to energize his supporters, he has proposed two referenda that day in order, he says, to deepen Taiwan's democracy and protect its "national sovereignty." Beijing, meanwhile, sees the referenda as the first step in a calculated, three-year timetable for establishing Taiwan's juridical independence, which, China states, would trigger the use of force. Given U.S. involvement in Taiwan's security, this raises the prospect of a Sino-American war -potentially even nuclear war.
Chen claims his goal, like George W. Bush's goal, is to preserve the "status quo" and that the president supports him. At the very least, this is misleading.
For over 30 years, as it has worked to advance relations with Beijing for reasons of fundamental national interest while protecting Taiwan against forced reunification, the United States has assiduously stayed out of the controversy over Taiwan's sovereignty, focusing on maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. To do this, every president since Richard Nixon has "acknowledged" the PRC claim that Taiwan is part of "one China" and, while not embracing that assertion, has agreed not to support outcomes that conflict with it, such as "one China, one Taiwan" or "two Chinas." Though less than optimal for the U.S., PRC, or Taiwan, that stance has allowed all three to advance their interests without having to confront the contradictions - and risks of armed conflict - inherent in the competing claims. And within this framework, Taiwan has developed from a poor, authoritarian society into a prosperous democracy.
Now, while Chen may avoid "declaring" independence, he seeks to "consolidate" what he calls Taiwan's existing "sovereign, independent" status. This contrasts sharply with the U.S. view that preserving the "status quo" means not only ensuring that Beijing does not use force to achieve reunification but also that Taipei does not provoke war through unilateral challenges regarding Taiwan's sovereign status.
Polls have consistently reflected the pragmatism of Taiwan's people in supporting the "status quo" rather than directly challenging Beijing over "independence" in ways that could threaten the very basis of Taiwan's free and flourishing existence. However, Chen is currently appealing to the gut political aspirations of most people on the island, urging them to vote with their hearts, not their heads, assumingng somehow -presumably including through the threat of American military intervention - the worst will not happen. This is an unacceptable gamble with their future and ours.
After a rocky start, the Bush administration has, overall, steered an admirably balanced course through the dangerous political shoals of the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. has strongly backed democracy in Taiwan, including referenda on strictly local matters. But the current proposals by their very nature -regardless of their wording - ultimately implicate questions of war and peace, and while Washington is concerned about the PRC missile build-up opposite Taiwan, it has sought to discourage the referenda not only as ineffectual for dealing with those missiles but as unnecessarily provocative.
President Bush tried quiet diplomacy, but Chen Shui-bian ignored even his personal appeals. Consequently, in a highly unusual move, the president publicly criticized the Taiwan leader in mid-December. However, rather than taking stock of how seriously he was mismanaging relations with Taipei's main supporter, Chen sought, instead, to quell U.S. criticism with textual changes in the referenda, using them to ostensibly promote measures - increased defense spending and cross-Strait dialogue - favored in Washington.
But the U.S. saw the proposed votes as unnecessary for taking decisions on those issues and, after again unsuccessfully trying a low-key approach, eventually began to question publicly what constructive purpose these referenda served. Still Chen claimed - and claims - the U.S. appreciates his efforts and supports the referenda.
It is important to respect Taiwan's democracy and the people's right to vote on any issue. And Washington should maintain scrupulous neutrality in Taiwan's presidential election. But in light of the risks the current trend creates for U.S. national security interests, it is time to be more direct, to make U.S. views clear, minimizing any chance of miscalculation or later recriminations about the consequences of current steps for future U.S.-Taiwan relations and cross-Strait stability.
Although the U.S. still hopes to avoid commenting on the substance of cross-Strait sovereignty issues, Chen's continuing efforts may eventually force Washington to openly reject his definition of the "status quo." For now, at a minimum, the U.S. should state unambiguously that these referenda are unhelpful and potentially dangerous. We owe our friends in Taiwan - and ourselves - no less candor than that.
(Posted here with the permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)