Taiwanese elections, which tend to pit pro- and anti-Beijing forces against one another, are always awkward for Washington. The U.S. is formally committed to a “One China” policy, but no less to protecting Taiwan against Chinese aggression.
The March 20 presidential elections will be no exception. Taiwanese voters will decide whether to reelect their president Chen Shui-bian, who is cool toward China, or replace him with the pro-Beijing Lien Chan, of the nationalist Kuomintang Party. Crucially, voters will also be asked two referendum questions:
“If China refuses 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?”
“Would you agree that our government should engage in negotiations with China about 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?”
China, which criticizes the referendum as a provocation, has unsuccessfully sought to convince the United States to use its influence as Taiwan’s trading partner and military supplier to pressure that country to call off the referendum. President Bush, in line with his predecessors, has stood by President
Nixon’s Shanghai Communiqué of 1972 which states that:
“the U.S. acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.”
At the same time, however, in the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. has committed to:
“…provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
The U.S. obviously doesn’t want to antagonize China, a crucial trade partner with a massive military and fast-growing global clout — and, most recently, an important mediating role in the United States’ efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
Washington has been sending mixed messages about the referendum. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage questioned President Chen’s motives for calling the referenda in the first place during a January visit to China. Armitage said that “referenda are generally reserved for items or issues that are either very divisive or very difficult” and that Taiwan’s referendum fails to meet either test.”
Yet on February 6th , U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randall Schriver and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless endorsed Taiwan’s referendum, answered “yes” to both of the referendum questions, and argued for stronger U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation. Lawless testified in a congressional hearing that:
“…the United States stands alone in its political courage, strategic imperative and sense of moral responsibility in assisting the security of Taiwan’s democracy…We think [China’s] missile threat is extremely serious…”
Then, on February 11, Colin Powell told a congressional committee, “We don’t really see a need for these referenda. We made it clear to [the Taiwanese government] that we do not want to see these actions lead in any way to a change in the situation.”
The contradictory messages maybe be a reflection, as the New York Times points out:
“…that there is no consensus within the Bush administration to do more than it has already done — to apparently little effect — to dissuade Mr. Chen from holding the referendum.”
While the cause of Taiwanese self-determination has congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle, it is within Republican, not Democratic, circles that some of the most vocal supporters are to be found. Gary Schmitt, the director of the conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century sees the referendum as a valid response to China’s policy of military intimidation and international isolation of Taiwan. As Schmitt writes in the Weekly Standard:
“Taiwan’s critics maintain Beijing had softened its rhetoric over Taiwan. But it never softened its actions. China has spent the past year squeezing Taipei internationally–preventing its entry into the World Health Organization, trying to downgrade its status in the World Trade Organization, and routinely frustrating its efforts to play a normal role in regional forums. Nor did Beijing slow its military build-up aimed at Taiwan. On January 13, China even resurrected its threat ‘to adopt all possible drastic measures, including the use of force,’ unless concrete progress is made on ‘reunification.’ The Bush administration–distracted as it is by other pressing issues, and influenced by a few senior advisers who see Taiwan more as a problem than an asset–has offered a half-hearted response to this bullying.”
In contrast to the 1996 and 2000 Taiwanese elections, when China’s bellicose statements and military exercises served only to antagonize the Taiwanese voters and boost support for pro-independence candidates, China has shown to be more diplomatically astute this time around. At a press briefing, Zhang Mingqing, the spokesman of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that:
“We won’t get involved in Taiwan’s elections… We don’t care who will be elected. What we care about is after they’re elected, what is his attitude in developing cross-straits relations and national reunification.”
China does not have the military capability to successfully to invade Taiwan, and thus has been forced to tolerate Taiwanese assertions of sovereignty, argues Daniel McCarthy in Asia Times. Were China, continues McCarthy, to label such statements as
“as a declaration of independence, China’s bluff [China has stated that a declaration of independence would justify an attack] would have been called and it would be forced to start a war with Taiwan or lose face.”
Even Chen’s rival for the presidency, KMT’s Lien Chan, who has criticized the upcoming referendum, has told China not to meddle in Taiwanese elections.
So far, in spite of some generals advocating “reunification” at any price, cooler heads have prevailed. But with the military build-up escalating on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Washington’s may not be able to duck the independence question for much longer.