Chen’s UN referendum plan forces tougher US reaction

It may help him gain domestic support, but Taiwan risks losing ‘shelter of ambiguity’.

TAIWANESE President Chen Shui-bian, in pushing ahead with a referendum at home on UN membership, risks unravelling 30 years of American policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to the island’s future.

The gravity of the issue was clearly apparent when President George W. Bush met his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Sydney on Thursday.

Mr Bush joined the Chinese leader in criticising the move, underscoring Washington’s opposition to the referendum.

“Observers should note that their meeting led off with the Taiwan issue,” said Mr Douglas Paal, the Bush administration’s former US representative to Taipei.

“This is a big break from precedent, where both sides subsume their differences, and indicates a high level of concern in both capitals.”

Indeed, tensions have been growing between the United States and Taiwan in recent weeks.

Washington showed its pique at the outset of Mr Chen’s recent Latin American trip.

The US confined him to a transit stop in relatively isolated Anchorage in Alaska, much to the chagrin of the Taiwanese leader. On previous such visits, he was allowed access to major American cities such as Los Angeles or Houston.

The referendum issue might have well triggered a shift in US policy towards Taiwan.

It has been long-standing policy in Washington, which provides a security umbrella for Taiwan, to very deliberately take no position on the matter of its sovereignty. But it broke that tradition by announcing last week that the island is not a state.

Mr Dennis Wilder, a senior National Security Council official, said:

“Membership in the United Nations requires statehood. Taiwan, or the Republic of China, is not at this point a state in the international community.”

The statement provoked fury in Taipei, where dozens of protesters burned and trampled the Stars and Stripes outside the de facto US mission.

But Washington has thus far been careful not to be drawn into a full-fledged row.

Mr Paal, who also served under presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, explained that some in Taiwan were hoping to goad Washington into speaking out strongly against the referendum.

The aim is to force a patriotic reaction in Taiwan, where people will come out in support of Mr Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party, which is pushing the referendum issue.

“The US wants to show clarity in its position without adding unnecessary emotion to the issue,” said Mr Paal.

“The Bush administration has done so in a cool and calm fashion, repeatedly stressing that this referendum represents a risk to our bilateral interests and hoping voters will not support it.

“One thing Taiwanese voters should take into consideration is this: Do they want to see the logical outcome of this issue that could see US opposition at the United Nations to Taiwan’s application?

“By forcing the US to respond, Taiwan risks losing the shelter of ambiguity.” Clearly, Washington will not want to head in this direction.

The White House spokesman at the Apec summit told reporters: “For the moment, we are going to stay with our position and continue to exert our good influence on the Taiwanese to see if we can change their position.”

But analysts noted that in making this point twice and forcefully, the spokesman was indicating a tougher US position was in the offing if Taipei did not adjust its policy.

Washington’s big concern, of course, is Beijing.

White House insiders said the US does not want to be pushed to confront China at the UN on what is essentially a local election gambit for Taiwan, however much it is dressed up in rhetoric about democracy and independence.

A defiant Mr Chen on Thursday vowed to push ahead with the referendum while calling for “substantive dialogue” with the US.

“Taiwan is not part of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country,” he said via satellite to a Washington think-tank barely hours after the Bush-Hu meeting.

“It is the people of Taiwan who have the right to ask for appropriate representation in the UN.”

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