Dealing with Taiwan's Referendum on the United Nations

Report Asia

Dealing with Taiwan's Referendum on the United Nations

September 10, 2007 11 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

Bizarre as it may seem, a peaceful referendum in Taiwan may portend war. Dozens of challenges bedevil U.S.-China relations, but the "Taiwan Issue" was first on the agenda for President George W. Bush's talks with China's Hu Jintao at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last week. Hu has warned Bush directly that this year and the next will be a "highly dangerous period" in the Taiwan Strait and accused Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of "brazenly" pushing a referendum to secure Taiwan's admission to the U.N., which China sees as a move toward independence.[1] Hu alluded to a legal mandate under China's 2005 "Anti-Secession Law" to use "nonpeaceful means" to counter "major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China,"[2] and Beijing has informed Washington that, regardless of the actual wording of Taiwan's referendum, the referendum itself is just such a "major incident." "Referenda" and "wars" have thus become psychically entwined in America's distracted China policy, and shooting in the Taiwan Strait is the last thing the United States needs right now.

Taiwan's Referendum
Because Taiwan's last 12 attempts to join the United Nations as the "Republic of China" all failed, Taiwan is holding a popular referendum in March 2008 seeking the electorate's advice on whether Taiwan should apply to join the United Nations as "Taiwan" (or some other "flexible" nomenclature). The previous attempts failed because there already is a "China" in the U.N., so perhaps applying as something other than "China," Taiwan reasons, might work.

The specifics of Taiwan's referendum are irrelevant to China's threats of war. Chances are, partisan squabbling over the referendum's wording and the supermajority threshold that Taiwan's constitution places on referenda will prevent the referendum itself from passing. And referendum or no, Taiwan's application for U.N. membership has little hope of ever being approved. And just to make sure, in 2005, China embarked on a multi-year diplomatic campaign to remove Taiwan from every international forum it can find, including the U.N. and all its specialized and associated agencies.

Still, American officials are irritated by Taiwan's referendum. They see it as a cynical political move by some Taipei leaders seeking domestic electoral advantage. Of course, politics cannot but be some part of the equation. Policy and politics intersect in the U.S. political system-especially during election time. Why would it not be the case in Taiwan, a sister democracy approaching two momentous national elections?

But this is about more than just about politicians jockeying for position. Surely, Beijing's single-minded determination to stamp out all international reference to the democratic government in Taipei in an effort to bolster its own legitimacy is no more extraordinary than democratic Taiwan's desperate struggle to shore up its eroding international personality. So, as President Bush and his advisors fret about Taiwan's democratic processes, they might also consider that China's war threats are far more inimical to U.S. interests than Taiwan's referendum.

Taiwan's Problem
There is plenty of blame to go around for the Bush Administration's current confusion over Taiwan policy, much of which belongs in Taipei.

As former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui observed to me last month, "U.N. membership is not a legal issue, it is a political issue." The former Taiwanese president explained that membership is a matter of votes, and to get votes in the U.N. "the most important things are power and friends." Taiwan's "power" pales in comparison to China's, so that leaves "friends." Taiwan's most important friends, President Lee said, are the United States and Japan, and "if you alienate people, you have a problem."[3] And so Taiwan has a problem.

President Bush was, no doubt, irritated to have Taiwan (democratic though it may be) inject its domestic politics into his broad China agenda, superseding Iran, North Korea, Darfur, trade, product safety, and climate change.[4] Moreover, the Administration appears to care little about Taiwan's referendum, except that China seems serious about a shooting war to resolve the matter. In the end, President Bush reassured his Chinese interlocutor of America's "one China policy" and the "consistent U.S. position of opposing any changes to the status quo."[5] After the meeting one White House aide, gratified, said he thought the Chinese "were pleased at the public reiteration of our position last week by John Negroponte" which called the Taiwan referendum a "mistake" and an "alteration of the status quo."[6]

What Is the "Status Quo"?
Alas, the Bush Administration (nor any previous administration since before World War II) has never defined just what the status quo in the Taiwan Strait actually is. Rather, U.S. policy toward Taiwan's "status" has been dogmatically agnostic-that is, the United States has "not formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and [has] not made any determination as to Taiwan's political status."[7]

Taiwan's "undetermined" status is, of course, a diplomatic fiction designed to propitiate Beijing. U.S. domestic law treats Taiwan as it does all other "foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities."[8] Moreover, given that Taiwan possesses "a permanent population; a defined territory; government; and capacity to enter into relations with the other states" it meets the description of a "state" under the 1933 Montevideo Convention, which the United States ratified in 1934.[9] Accordingly, the United States has no trouble-legal, philosophical, strategic, or otherwise-treating Taiwan as it does any other "country." Not incidentally, "undetermined" has also always meant that the U.S. does not regard Taiwan as a part of the Peoples' Republic of China.

But a crisis is in the making. While Taiwan's leaders remain tone-deaf amid the vast global preoccupations of their most important friend, the United States, the Bush Administration appears on the verge of reversing its "long-standing" agnosticism on the "status quo" in the Taiwan Strait to punish Taiwan's tone-deafness. On August 30, a National Security Council aide flatly and un-agnostically declaimed that "Taiwan is not a state in the international community."[10]

Beijing, naturally, is delighted. An American declaration that Taiwan is "not a state" has been Beijing's dream for a half a century. That the United States would, in the face of Chinese threats, appear to simply abandon a "long-standing" policy must also send a sobering signal to the rest of Asia: Washington is so distracted with real shooting wars that it cannot bring itself to risk Beijing's ill will under any circumstances. Even President Bush's "reiteration" at the Sydney APEC of "America's commitment to help strengthen the expansion of freedom" in the region looks squishy as Taiwan's political legitimacy erodes.[11]

Recommendations for Taiwan and the U.S.
To avoid an irreversible crisis in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, both sides must recognize the gravity of the referendum issue.

Taipei should:

  • Rethink the referendum. Taiwan's referendum may be complicated by new and competing referenda texts which could wind up cancelling each other out. Taiwan's experience has been that a referendum that cannot pass is worse than no referendum at all. So it is still possible to finesse the matter.
  • Cease "alienating…friends." Coordinating with the United States and other key democracies is essential to preserving Taiwan's international personality in the United Nations, in its agencies, and across a broad spectrum of world organizations. Taiwan's leaders must approach these issues with a systematic and strategic outlook. Precipitate action will fail, and without friends, failure can be disasterous.

Washington should:

  • Think through the endgame for Taiwan. The United States must appreciate Taiwan's desperation as it struggles to preserve its identity. The last legs of Taiwan's democratic legitimacy are buckling as Washington signals-perhaps inadvertently-an end to a half-century-old doctrine that Taiwan's status is "undetermined" and endorses Beijing's stance that, whatever Taiwan is, it isn't sovereign. From there, it is a slippery slide to the next question: Who has sovereignty over Taiwan if not the people of Taiwan? To have lost Chiang Kai-shek's China in 1949 may be seen as a misfortune, but to lose democratic Taiwan 60 years later will look like carelessness. If, indeed, the NSC staff statement appearing to resolve Taiwan's "undetermined" sovereign status was inadvertent, it ought to be immediately corrected.
  • Articulate U.S. policy. The U.N. Secretary-General has promulgated documents asserting that the United Nations considers "Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral part of the PRC." This assertion is not universally held by U.N. member states. The State Department, apparently, has only mentioned the U.S.'s objection to a U.N. Under-Secretary-General because apparently U.S. Taiwan policy is a secret. Secret foreign policies are counter to America's democratic traditions and confuse the American public. The Bush Administration must be able to say forthrightly to the American people what it is willing to say to the United Nations Secretary-General.[12]
  • Negotiate with Taiwan. The U.S. and Taiwan should agree on a limit to Taiwan's declarations of its own independent identity from China in return for United States reassurances, first pledged by President Ronald Reagan in 1982,[13] that it will not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Island without the express and uncoerced assent of the Taiwanese people as envisioned in the Taiwan Relations Act. Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Randall G. Schriver, has suggested that the United States offer "six new assurances"[14] in return for Taiwan's reaffirming of President Chen Shui-bian's May 2000 "Five No's" on Taiwan's independence.
  • Establish better, higher level, on-going communication links with Taiwan's government. Matters should not need to rise to the level of a severe problem or crisis before being considered at senior U.S. government levels. Upgrading the rank and influence of the top U.S. representative in Taiwan would be a good start. Giving Taiwan's representatives in the U.S. regular access to the National Security Counsel, along with Defense, State, and Commerce Department staff, is also desirable.

Taiwan is the canary in America's Asia policy mineshaft. Clearly, a distracted Washington is allowing a laser-focused Beijing to shape the strategic agenda in the Pacific. America's democratic friends and allies in Asia, from Japan to Singapore to India to Australia, anxiously watch America's new willingness to accept China's new preeminence in the region. How the United States defends democratic Taiwan's international identity in its current crisis will tell Asia and the world much about Washington's willingness to defend them in future challenges from China.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] For an examination of Chinese media reportage of the September 6 Bush-Hu meeting see Open Source Center, "Analysis: China Signals Concern Over Taiwan in Hu-Bush Meeting," Office of the Director of National Intelligence, No. FEA20070907309106, September 7, 2007.

[2] "Fan Fenlie Guojia Fa' Quanwen" ['Anti Secession Law' Complete text], Xinhua News Agency, March 14, 2005, Article VIII, at

[3] Conversation with former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, August 24, 2007.

[4] White House Press Office, "Press Briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino and Senior Administration Officials," September 6, 2007,

[5] White House Press Office "President Bush Meets with President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China," September 6, 2007, at

[6] On August 27, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte granted an interview to a Beijing-controlled cable TV network and declared, for the benefit of the Chinese government, that the United States "oppose[s] the notion of that kind of a referendum because we see that as a step towards the declaration-towards a declaration of independence of Taiwan, towards an alteration of the status quo." Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State, "Interview By Naichian Mo of Phoenix TV, John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State," August 27, 2007, at

[7] There is an entire literature on this issue. See John J. Tkacik, ed. Reshaping the Taiwan Strait (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2007). This language was most recently articulated in letter from Susan Bremner, Deputy Taiwan Coordination Advisor, U.S. Department of States, to Dr. Margaret S. Lu, M.D., June 26, 2007.

[8] Taiwan Relations Act, 22 USC 48 3304(a) and 4(b)(1).

[9] See Article 1 of the "Convention on Rights and Duties of States (inter-American); December 26, 1933" at Montevideo December 26, 1933, at

[10] White House Press Office, "Press Briefing on the President's Trip to Australia and the APEC Summit by Senior Administration Officials," August 30, 2007, at

[11] White House Press Office, "Fact Sheet: Strengthening the Forces of Freedom and Prosperity in the Asia Pacific," September 6, 2007, at

[12] The United States noted that the U.N. General Assembly resolution 2758 adopted on 25 October 1971 does not in fact establish that Taiwan is a province of the People's Republic of China (PRC). In July 2007, the United States urged the U.N. Secretariat to review its statements on the status of Taiwan and to avoid taking sides in a sensitive matter on which U.N. members have agreed to disagree for over 35 years.

[3] On July 14, 1982, President Reagan gave "six assurances" to Taiwan's leader, including that "the U.S. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan." See Paul Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, Testimony before the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate, "Taiwan Communiqué and Separation of Powers," March 10, 1983. ("We have not changed our longstanding position on the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan.") For further information on the six assurances, see Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D., "Why the Administration Should Reaffirm the 'Six Assurances' to Taiwan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1352, March 16, 2000, at

[14] Randall Schriver, "Taiwan needs 'six new assurances,'" Taipei Times, August 22, 2007, p. 8, at


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow