The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #401 on Asia

January 21, 2004

January 21, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia

Taiwan's Missile Referendum

After years of military intimidation by Beijing, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has announced wording for a referendum designed to draw both domestic and international attention to China's missile threat to the democratic island. And he has succeeded.

The Bush Administration and Congress must preempt China's belligerence by:

  • Reminding China in congressional resolutions that its massive ballistic missile force targeted on Taiwan is the root cause of instability in the Taiwan Strait, not Taiwan's referenda protesting it;
  • Encouraging Taiwan to devote appropriate resources to its own defense and not assume that the United States can forestall a surprise attack;
  • Urging Beijing to respond positively to the Taiwan government's offer to negotiate confidence-building measures in the Taiwan Strait; and
  • Reasserting America's policy, as mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act, to make available to Taiwan the defense equipment necessary to protect itself against the Chinese missile threat.

A Diplomatic Referendum

On Friday, January 16, the text of the March 20 referendum was issued:

  1. The People of Taiwan demand that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should Mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the Government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?
  2. Would you agree that our Government should engage in negotiations with Mainland China on the establishment of a "peace and stability" framework for cross-strait interactions in order to build consensus and for the welfare of the peoples on both sides?

The wording addresses President Bush's concerns, expressed on December 9, that the ballot not involve a change in Taiwan's murky legal "status quo" and so should be welcome in Washington. Asked Friday what he thought of the referendum's text, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "I think President Chen has shown a little flexibility in the way those two questions have been worded." In diplomatese, this indicates that the U.S. was satisfied that the referendum's text was within bounds.

Powell also took time Friday to restate the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan. "Of course we support Taiwan," he told an interviewer, "we have an obligation to do so under our Taiwan Relations Act, and both parties are aware that we will continue to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act."

Powell added that Beijing was aware of the U.S. defense commitment -- a point reinforced in Beijing just hours earlier. At a Beijing press conference, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, asserted that "if you look at the buildup on the Chinese mainland side of the Strait in terms of surface-to-surface missiles, you would see a very large buildup." As a consequence, Myers added, the U.S. has a responsibility to help Taiwan defend itself "so there will be a peaceful resolution of this problem and there will not be temptation to use force to solve it."

It seems reasonably clear that Taiwan passed a draft text of the proposed referendum to Washington for review. Very likely the Powell and Myers statements were intended to encourage Taiwan's president to keep the language of the missile referendum within bounds. If so, it worked.

Washington can hardly deny that Chinese missiles threaten the island republic. In fact, the U.S. government has been urging Taiwan to face up to China's missile deployments for the past three years. Every Taiwan defense official visiting the Pentagon is treated to the same disquisition on the necessity for missile defense, long-range surveillance radars, and hardened construction to protect vulnerable military targets. Every year, the Pentagon describes China's growing military challenge in its annual report on the "Military Power of the People's Republic of China." This being the case, it would be hard for the administration to object to the proposed referendum's initial paragraph.

Washington should openly welcome the referendum's second question on "peace and stability" in the Strait. The U.S. has been urging "dialogue" across the Taiwan Strait for 30 years, and the referendum will highlight the fact that Beijing, not Taipei, shuns "dialogue" (demanding that democratic Taiwan first declares itself under communist China's sovereignty). But Beijing now avers that any "referendum" is tantamount to Taiwan's independence and warns ominously that "the next two months will decide if Taiwan is at the brink of danger."

Until China understands that we view its intimidating military deployments, and not Taiwan's protests against them, as the real provocations in the Taiwan Strait, China will continue its bad behavior.

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

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center