TAIPEI - It was a big relief for Taiwan
when US President George W Bush didn't comment on
its bid to join the United Nations while at a
joint press conference with Chinese President Hu
Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
(APEC) summit in Sydney on Thursday.
bid to polish his legacy before his term expires
next May, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has
been pushing for a controversial referendum on
whether Taiwan (under that name, not
"Republic of China", under
which Taipei previously held a UN seat before
losing it to the People's Republic of China)
should apply for UN membership.
Wilder, US National Security Council senior
director for Asian Affairs, had warned last week
that Bush would talk with Hu about Taiwan's UN bid
and the referendum in a sidelines summit at the
APEC meeting. He described Chen's call for the
referendum as "a little bit perplexing".
However, Bush said nothing. "The outcome
is certainly a relief," said Shieh Jhy-wey,
spokesman for the Executive Yuan - Taiwan's
cabinet - acknowledging that Taipei had been
prepared for the worst.
Chen's UN agenda
has soured Taiwan's ties with the United States,
which in January laid down "red lines" that Taiwan
and Chen were not to cross - and using the name
"Taiwan" to try to gain UN membership was one of
With hope of consolidating
support from his Democratic Progressive Party
(DPP) followers, Chen - whose popularity is
lagging - aggressively pursued memberships in the
UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) in the
name of "Taiwan". His membership bids came in the
form of personal letters to WHO director general
Margaret Chen and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
in April and July, respectively.
that mainland China is strangling Taiwan with one
hand and holding a gun to its head with the other,
Chen said the bids were urgent efforts to break
Taiwan's political-apartheid status in the
international community. As of June, Taiwan
maintained official diplomatic relations with only
24 sovereign states.
Taiwan has been
formally called the Republic of China since Chiang
Kai-shek's Nationalist forces fled there after
being defeated by the communist guerrilla armies
of Mao Zedong in 1949. Beijing claims sovereignty
over Taiwan despite nearly six decades of separate
rule and has vowed to use force if necessary to
prevent what it has called the "rogue province"
from formally splitting away.
obstruction of Taiwan's bid for observer status in
the WHO and Washington's failure to assist Taipei
on the issue provided a perfect chance for Chen to
manipulate the agenda and call for the domestic
Should the referendum have any
success, it might help boost support for the
ruling DPP in the upcoming legislative and
presidential elections and would certainly put
Beijing in a difficult spot. Furthermore, Chen
might be able to extend his influence to his
successor after he steps down next May.
"This referendum carries
multi-significance. It certainly carries a
'hundred benefits without a single harm' to DPP's
presidential-election hopes, and could convey a
message to Beijing should it get passed," said a
former DPP senior official involved in
cross-strait affairs, who spoke under the
condition of anonymity. "It would be difficult for
Beijing to handle the referendum's passage."
The DPP government backed Chen's move with
a "UN for Taiwan, Peace Forever" public relations
campaign that will culminate in a mass rally
scheduled for September 15, two days before the UN
General Assembly's annual meeting kicks off.
Intending to demonstrate its will to
defend Taiwan's sovereignty and to mitigate
possible political damage caused by the DPP's
planned referendum, the opposition Kuomintang
(KMT) party, which has been considered a domestic
brake by Beijing, is also calling for a referendum
on the UN bid. The KMT's version asks whether
Taiwan should use "pragmatic and flexible
strategies" to rejoin international bodies such as
the UN and others.
"This is simply a
rhetorical game for Taiwan to voice its own wish,
and no substantial change would be made to the
status quo," said Ruan Ming, former special
assistant to Chinese Communist Party secretary
general Hu Yaobang. "The US's strong condemnation
has not only enlivened the rhetorical game but
also made it impossible for Taiwan's two political
parties to back off now."
The UN bid
garnered only mild interest with the Taiwanese
public, which was tired of political sniping and
laden with doubts over Chen's leadership until
Washington started to denounce Chen's campaign
publicly late last month.
In an interview
with Hong Kong's Phoenix TV, whose audience
usually includes Beijing's decision-makers, US
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called
the referendum a mistake and noted that Washington
considered it a step toward a formal declaration
of Taiwan's independence. Then Wilder described
the call for the referendum "a little bit
perplexing", adding: "Taiwan, or the Republic of
China, is not at this point a state in the
Washington-based Taiwan experts agree that
US-Taiwan ties are at their worst since the DPP
administration assumed power in 2000 and even more
contentious than when then-president Lee Teng-hui
in 1999 defined China-Taiwan relations as
Chen's referendum push
and Washington's criticisms have disappointed
Taiwan supporters such as Harvey Feldman, a former
US ambassador and a key figure in drafting the
Taiwan Relations Act. He said the referendum only
serves the DPP's domestic interests and has
certainly pushed its only powerful global ally
closer to Beijing.
Meanwhile Beijing has
chosen to remain calm in response to the moves,
but it did reiterate its intention to apply its
2005 Anti-Secession Law (which authorizes military
force against the island in the event of "Taiwan's
secession from China ... in the name of 'Taiwan
independence"') should Washington fail to rein in
With Chen's record of initiating
"surprises", Beijing has repeatedly warned
Washington that he would likely declare Taiwan
independent should the referendum succeed.
Under Taiwan's Referendum Law, a
referendum only succeeds if more than half of
Taiwan's 16.8 million eligible voters cast
ballots, and more than 50% of the votes support
the initiative. Despite an intensive publicity
campaign, two previous referendums held along with
the presidential election in 2004 failed to meet
the first standard.
Realizing that both
parties' efforts for their referendums might fail,
DPP politicians, such as Vice President Annette Lu
and its presidential candidate Frank Hsieh, have
suggested merging the two to ensure passage, while
others have advised supporters to back both
Bonnie Glaser, a senior
associate at the Washington-based Center for
Strategic and International Studies think-tank,
said the White House probably doesn't support the
KMT's version either because the US does not want
Taiwan to join any international organizations
that require statehood for membership.
"But since the KMT's version does not seek
to change the national title and therefore would
not affect the status quo, I doubt the US will
criticize this publicly," she noted.
Taiwan's UN flap is not over yet. After
his letter to Ban failed, Chen said Taiwan would
make another bid for membership at the upcoming
annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. What
the US will do remains to be seen. But to reaffirm
its concern, Beijing is sending another delegation
led by its Taiwan Affairs Office director Chen
Yunlin to Washington next week.
after Bush was re-elected in 2004, he vowed that
Washington would do "whatever it takes" to defend
Taiwan. And on his way to the APEC meeting in
2005, he surprised observers when he publicly
praised Taiwan's democracy.
didn't take long for Taiwan's ruling party to sour
"If this was something
fully positive for Taiwan but not the DPP, the DPP
would not go ahead with it. But if it were the
other way around, the DPP would push it forward,"
commented a former senior official who was
involved in the cross-strait affairs for decades.
Ting-I Tsai is a freelance
journalist based in Taipei.