REFERENDUM–TAIWAN’S “PROVOCATION?”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 13

By Holmes Liao

A country relishing democracy, liberty, and prosperity is not necessarily a country enjoying international popularity. In spite of its remarkable advancement in democracy and the extraordinary achievements of its economy, Taiwan is nevertheless the world’s most diplomatically encroached country.

If recent reports are accurate, China has said that it is opposed to the holding of a referendum on any issue in Taiwan, such as joining the World Health Organization. The United States has “acknowledged” the Chinese statement, and policymakers in Washington reportedly see Taiwan’s referendum as a “provocation,” one that could grant Beijing a pretense for its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to cross the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s political predicament stems largely from Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is an “inseparable part of the sacred motherland” and that no other country, especially the United States, should interfere with its “internal affairs.” In order to prevent Taiwan from moving toward independence, China has over the years successfully injected the perception into the minds of world leaders that, if Taiwan declares independence, war will be inevitable across the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon’s 2002 annual report on “The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China” suggests that Washington bases its East Asia security strategy on just this perception as well.

This author does not intend to argue over whether China will invade Taiwan if the latter should proclaim formally the end of all political entanglements with China. In fact, war is so complicated that numerous factors and conditions, both subjective and objective, must coalesce before its realization. By examining the magnitude of Beijing’s problems, ranging from non-performing loans to government deficits and unemployment, from bank stringency to social unrest, one should grasp that the unification of Taiwan is, at best, a backburner issue for Beijing’s leaders. Beijing’s subjective, overly simplistic precondition for invading Taiwan suggests that its threat–contrary to the world’s perception–is more a matter of political rhetoric than a credible military contrivance.

China’s other problems also serve to entangle Taiwan. To cite one, the communist ideology has lost its credibility in China, and the Chinese Communist Party must therefore rely on strident nationalism to legitimize its authoritarian rule. China’s aggressive policy towards Taiwan, subsequently, is based partly on nationalism and partly on weakened civilian control over the military. In order to draw attention away from increasing domestic and economic problems, Beijing could shift its focus to the issue of Taiwan. Even if Taipei does not “provoke” Beijing, China could still,in due course, instigate a crisis in the Taiwan Strait in the event that it perceives a necessity and the opportunity to reap worthwhile gains.

In light of China’s current military capabilities, Beijing’s leadership should be more concerned that a failed invasion could confront it with the humiliation of Taiwan’s permanent separation. The resulting internal upheavals and power struggles could even lead to a regime change in China. Consequently, a military conflict would not seem to be the best choice for Beijing.

Ancient Chinese stratagems sought to achieve capitulation without resorting to war–and the best strategy is one that triumphs using psychological warfare. By and large, Beijing’s tactics of feinting and bluffing, backed up by its missile deployments and numerous military exercises, serve to manipulate international apprehension about the essence of the Taiwan-China dispute. In 2000, following the emergence of the alleged spy case involving Wen-Ho Lee, a former Los Alamos National Lab’s physicist, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a report indicating that perception management is one of the major threats posed by China to U.S. national security. Despite Washington’s awareness of this sort of perception manipulation by China, the United States nevertheless remains vulnerable to such schemes. It is against this background that many in Washington, and the West in general, have come to view Taipei’s efforts to win greater international recognition and to safeguard its people’s basic human rights as “provocative.”

Though Taiwan has no territorial ambitions toward China, Taiwan is constantly threatened by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In fact, the relationship between Taiwan and China is similar to that between a sheep and a wolf. How can a sheep possibly provoke a wolf? When the West allows Taiwan’s international character to be defined by China, then Taipei’s efforts to expand diplomatic ties and attain better treatment in the international community are called “trouble-making.” Countries with such misperceptions would naturally regard Taiwan’s peaceful political maneuvers, such as holding a referendum, as “provocative.”

As it seeks international recognition of its de facto sovereignty, Taiwan has never acted in a provocative fashion. By comparison, a quick review of contemporary history will reveal that China’s relations with countries such as India, Vietnam and the Philippines have often been turbulent. One reason for China’s many border disputes with its neighbors is its determination to hold on to all imperial conquests since antiquity. This sentimental insistence is aggravated by the fact that the regime in Beijing is a dictatorial one, and is influenced heavily by the military in its decision making. Using its growing economic clout, China seeks to build up its military might in order to defeat potential regional adversaries, such as Japan, and to deter global strategic threats, such as that posed by the United State. Hence, even aside from its desire to control Taiwan, Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions are causing deep concerns throughout Asia.

Until the early 1990s, Taiwan was ruled for nearly half a century by a ruthless Chinese tyranny. Given this dreadful memory, the people of Taiwan detest the prospect of being part of Communist China. Regardless of who becomes president of democratic Taiwan in 2004, that leader is unlikely to let the country be “unified” with the dictatorial regime in Beijing. Nor would a future government in Taipei allow Beijing to transform Taiwan into another Hong Kong. Thus, Taiwan’s quest for sovereignty and security led former President Lee Teng-hui to proclaim that Taiwan and China have “special state-to-state relations.” Last August, Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian, similarly announced that “there is one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait.” According to polls, both statements received the support of 70-80 percent of the public.

When Taiwan was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s tyrannical Chinese Nationalist Party, the Taiwanese people had little say about their national policy. Over the past two decades, as they faced China’s diplomatic encirclement, the Nationalist government employed a so-called “pragmatic diplomacy”–that is, the maintenance of cultural and economic ties without formal diplomatic relations. While the current Administration has no immediate plan to dramatically alter this policy, it will not be sustainable in a full-fledged democracy that is dominated by Taiwanese citizens having a rising sense of national identity. Taiwan’s aspirations to preserve its sovereignty and attain an internationally recognized statehood will therefore only continue to advance.

To date, U.S. policy has sought to discourage Taiwan from declaring independence while simultaneously leaving enough gray area to deter Chinese military adventurism. Some policymakers in the United States have nonetheless stated that the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan may be revoked if Taiwan “provokes” an attack. This is an illogical deterrence posture. If China were to attack and conquer Taiwan, the geopolitical consequences for the United States in the region would be the same no matter how the crisis originated. To punish Taiwan’s “provocation” by insinuating consent to the country’s destruction only serves to undermine the U.S. security commitment in the region.

For these reasons, Washington’s inconsistency on the Taiwan issue will not diminish the potential for conflict between Taiwan and China. By not seeking to accommodate Taiwan’s international aspirations “provocatively” and positively, but instead adopting a policy of shuffling and papering over problems, the United States will only exacerbate political antagonisms and may cause Taipei to take unilateral actions.

Taiwan is an economic and political success story. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, Taiwan is not a problem. Taiwan’s democracy is healthy and striving for wider international recognition. Even if a referendum is not held at this time, the will of the Taiwanese people cannot be forever suppressed. Other countries should not ignore this fact. Continuing to treat Taiwan as a provocative troublemaker not only undermines universal democratic values, but also undermines peace and security in East Asia.

It is time to correct misperceptions about Taiwan’s “provocation.”

Holmes Liao, Ph.D., is Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan.