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. 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," 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.
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
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.
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." And so Taiwan has a
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. 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." 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."
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
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." 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.
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."
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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,
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" in return for Taiwan's reaffirming of
President Chen Shui-bian's May 2000 "Five No's" on Taiwan's
- 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
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.
Conversation with former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, August 24,
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 http://www.state.gov/s/d/2007/91479.htm.
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.
Taiwan Relations Act, 22 USC 48 3304(a) and 4(b)(1).
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.
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