By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 6, 2008
BEIJING, March 5 -- After months of giving warnings, China and the United States have resigned themselves to Taiwanese plans for a much-disputed referendum on whether the self-ruled island should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan.
Neither Beijing nor Washington has abandoned its strong opposition to the referendum, officials said, because it is seen in both capitals as a backdoor way to emphasize Taiwan's claim to independence, as well as a possible cause of tension in the Taiwan Strait. But faced with President Chen Shui-bian's unshaken determination to hold the vote, U.S. and Chinese officials hope the measure will be defeated by the island's crisis-weary voters.
The controversy over the vote, scheduled to be held in tandem with Taiwan's presidential election March 22, has illustrated anew the degree to which China and the United States have in recent years developed overlapping interests in combating Chen's crusade to push the island toward formal independence. Both governments, each for its own reasons, have put a priority on avoiding conflict and, to that end, postponing a clear legal definition of Taiwan's status in the world.
The Bush administration repeatedly has used strong language to oppose the vote, in public statements as well as private diplomatic contacts. Officials have condemned the referendum as an attempt to inch beyond the long-standing arrangement under which Taiwan functions as an independent country but has a constitution that leaves its status undefined and retains "Republic of China" as its formal name.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated the U.S. opposition during a visit here last week, calling the referendum provocative and a "bad idea." But like other U.S. officials, she stopped short of saying the United States would use its influence to prevent the vote from being held.
"Taiwan is a democratic entity," she said after a meeting with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in which the referendum was a key issue. "Its leaders will decide for themselves."
From the beginning, China has warned that the referendum moves dangerously close to an attempt to unilaterally change the constitutional status quo. China long has insisted the island must return to rule by Beijing, by force if all else fails, and in the meantime must be prevented from declaring formal independence or taking decisive steps in that direction.
In that light, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office has described Chen's referendum as a reckless gesture. In private, Chinese diplomats have warned their U.S. counterparts that President Hu Jintao's government takes the issue seriously, suggesting the vote may approach the red line for some kind of military response.
But as Taiwan makes preparations to go ahead with the referendum, there have been no signs of military gestures by China. On the contrary, the Taiwan Affairs Office announced a series of measures last week designed to make life easier for the more than 1 million Taiwanese who live and work in mainland China.
The moves demonstrated that Beijing thinks that appearing friendly is more fruitful than threats as a way to diminish the appeal of Chen's independence policies, according to a Taiwan specialist and adviser to the mainland government. Following that line in speeches Tuesday and Wednesday, Hu and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the country's vow never to allow independence, but avoided specific comment on the March 22 voting, saying only that separatist efforts are "doomed to fail."
The hope in Beijing is no longer that the vote will be called off, the specialist said, but that the measure will fail to gain enough votes for passage. If it succeeds, he added, Beijing could be faced with a difficult decision about whether to react, particularly if Chen decided to use it as a basis for further independence moves during his final months in office.
"We are worried that if the referendum passes, they will use it as a way to push farther down the road to legal independence," the specialist said.
The referendum will have little practical effect, experts pointed out. The United Nations has already rebuffed efforts by Chen's government to gain recognition of the name Taiwan when it takes part in U.N. activities. Taiwan is not a U.N. member; it will not be admitted to the United Nations under any name, the experts said.
But in the struggle over Taiwan, language and symbols have long been important tools. Even though it opposes Chen's referendum, for instance, the opposition Nationalist Party proposed its own referendum measure for March 22, asking whether Taiwan should apply for U.N. membership as the Republic of China or under any name at all.
The Nationalist proposal was a political gesture aimed at Taiwan's voters, a party official acknowledged, and not intended to imply that such a referendum was a good idea. The proposal grew from concerns that people might view the party as insufficiently Taiwanese, harming its presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, he said. Since then, the party has suggested it may call on voters to boycott any referendum, including its own. A formal announcement on that is due next week.
It is too late to remove the Nationalist measure from the ballot now, and both questions are all but certain to be on the ballot no matter how they are viewed in Washington and Beijing, according to Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University.
The proposals are likely to gain little support, he said, because the Taiwanese public has grown weary of Chen's confrontational style and the sense of crisis he has promoted in relations with China. Two unrelated referendum issues that the government initiated in conjunction with Taiwan's Jan. 12 legislative elections failed decisively, he noted, "proving that kind of strategy is not really useful anymore."
The Nationalists and their allies won a decisive victory in the legislative vote, leading to predictions that Ma is headed for a win over the candidate from Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, Frank Hsieh. That would be good news in Beijing and Washington, where officials hope Ma's pragmatic views would lower tensions and smooth the way for better relations across the strait.
Special correspondent Jane Rickards in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.