By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007
TAIPEI, Taiwan, July 7 -- President Chen Shui-bian said Taiwan will press ahead with a controversial referendum on whether the self-ruled island should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan, dismissing U.S. objections as appeasement of China.
Chen's defiant stand, outlined in frank language during an interview Friday, raised the prospect of a rocky period in Taiwan's relations with the Bush administration and a rise in tension across the volatile 100-mile strait separating Taiwan from mainland China.
China and the United States have complained that the referendum, which would have little practical effect, in fact is designed to promote a change in the island's official name, from Republic of China to Taiwan. This, both governments charged, could be read as a unilateral change in the island's status, something China's leaders have said they will not tolerate.
The island has been called the Republic of China since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces fled here after being defeated by the Communists of Mao Zedong in 1949. China has said the island must one day reunite with the mainland and has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent a decisive move toward independence -- such as changing the official name to Taiwan.
But Chen, an ardent independence advocate who is nearing the end of his second four-year term, said the idea of such a referendum has been endorsed by the main opposition group, the Nationalist Party, as well as his own People's Progressive Party and was supported by 71 percent of Taiwanese citizens questioned in a national poll. Canceling the plans would amount to frustrating the democratic rights of Taiwan's 23 million people to express their views and guide government policies, he said.
"The path we have embarked on is the right one, and we shall continue to follow it," he declared.
Although the referendum still faces legal challenges, the government has said it will be held at the same time as the election to choose Chen's successor, scheduled for March 22. This will have the effect of focusing voters' attention on the independence issue, which is likely to boost the chances of Chen's party in the presidential vote and in legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 12.
The Nationalist Party, although its presidential candidate Ma Yin-jeou favors de-emphasizing the independence struggle, decided Wednesday to endorse the referendum, while keeping the name issue open. A key Nationalist leader said the party acted out of electoral considerations, not wanting to appear anti-nationalist to centrist voters.
Chen, suddenly animated and making gestures after a long period of sitting motionless in the interview, said the Nationalists "did not dare" oppose the referendum because it represents what has become mainstream opinion in Taiwan, which he defined as "Taiwan-centric consciousness."
In any case, he said, he cannot understand on what grounds the Bush administration voiced objections. "Is it about the matter of holding a referendum itself?" he asked. "Or about joining the U.N.? Or about using the name Taiwan? What is there to oppose in any of this?"
Officials in Washington should not worry so much, he said, because applying for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan would not affect the island's official name, which is defined elsewhere. As a result, he added, it would not constitute a violation of the pledges he made to the Bush administration to avoid changes -- including changing the name -- that could be viewed as provocative by China and perhaps lead to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The United States, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, has pledged to aid Taiwan in defending against any attack by China. It is unclear whether this would mean military intervention. But with the war in Iraq consuming attention in Washington, the Bush administration is eager to avoid having to face such a choice.
Against that background, the State Department last month issued a strong statement laying out U.S. objections to the referendum. The objections also have been conveyed in private diplomatic exchanges, with U.S. officials arguing that the referendum would unnecessarily raise tensions with Beijing.
"The U.S. opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally," the statement said. "This would include a referendum on whether to apply to the U.N. under the name Taiwan."
Asked what lay behind the pressure from Washington, Chen said: "I think it is the China factor, and because the introduction of a referendum would not be in China's interests."
Chen said he values Taiwan's long friendship with the United States and takes seriously its concerns. He pledged to continue consultations with U.S. officials to avoid any "misunderstanding" on the issue but gave no sign he was prepared to back down.
"Democracy is the most important asset for Taiwan," he said, "and a referendum is the best weapon, the most effective theater missile defense, against the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party."
Chen's presidency has been marred by scandal -- his son-in-law is serving time for insider trading, his wife is on trial in an embezzlement case and he himself was investigated -- but he said he hopes fostering Taiwanese national identity will be his main legacy. The Nationalists were afraid to oppose the referendum precisely because these sentiments have become part of the mainstream in Taiwanese society, he said.
Chen said that when he took office in 2000, 36 percent of the population said they felt a Taiwanese national identity. The number rose to 68 percent in polls taken early this year, he added.
Chen, 56, started fighting for Taiwanese national identity and independence long before ascending to the presidency. At age 29, as a young lawyer, he was defending Huang Hsin-chieh, a Taiwanese who led an uprising in Kaohsiung against the 38-year martial law rule of the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
The younger Chiang announced in October 1986, in an interview with Katharine Graham of The Washington Post, that he was going to lift martial law. He issued an order abolishing restrictions on democracy in July of the following year -- 20 years ago this month.
Only 10 days earlier, Chen had put Chiang's word to test by announcing he had formed the Democratic Progressive Party. That was the beginning of a long political career that culminated in Chen's election in 2000 as the first non-Nationalist to lead modern Taiwan.
Chen said Chiang's decision was not a benevolent act, but a recognition that the international atmosphere had changed. "It came about because even he could not fight against the tide of democracy," Chen said.