Sep 6th 2007 | TAIPEI
From The Economist print edition
America blunders into Taiwan's electoral politics
SELDOM do Taiwan's two big political parties find anything to agree on. But they are at present united in condemning recent American pronouncements on Taiwan. So when George Bush met his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, in Sydney on September 6th, the Taiwanese were especially concerned at what he might say.
At issue is a referendum planned to coincide with presidential elections in Taiwan in March next year. It would seek support for a doomed attempt to join the United Nations as “Taiwan”, rather than “the Republic of China”, under which name it lost its seat to China in 1971. China—and, it seems, America—regard the referendum as the thin end of a wedge. The fat end would be a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China.
At worst, Mr Bush might have repeated a recent statement from a member of his National Security Council, Dennis Wilder, that Taiwan could not join the UN because “it is not at this point a state in the international community”. In fact, the issue seems simply to have been ignored. But that, too, was depressing for Taiwan, given the importance of the referendum. America is a vital ally. But the latest debate has brought relations to a low ebb.
Eager to build his legacy before he steps down in May next year, Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, has aggressively, if unavailingly, pursued membership for Taiwan in international organisations. He has defended this policy as necessary to break out of diplomatic isolation. For 14 years Taiwan has vainly been applying for UN membership under the name “Republic of China”. Mr Chen launched the new bid in July and has backed it with a public-relations campaign that will culminate in a mass rally on September 15th, three days before the annual session of the UN General Assembly.
The referendum is in part designed to win votes for Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in presidential and legislative elections. The DPP's roots are in the Taiwan independence movement, though in office it has toned down its rhetoric. The main opposition Nationalist party, the Kuomintang or KMT, favours eventual unification with China, which is not popular with voters. To limit any political damage from the DPP's referendum, the KMT has proposed one of its own, to ask whether Taiwan should use “pragmatic and flexible strategies” to rejoin international bodies such as the UN.
China has never renounced what it says is its right to “reunify” Taiwan by force, and in 2005 enshrined this in an “Anti-Secession Law”. In the past, when angered by Taiwan's manoeuvring, China has rattled its sabre, with the unintended consequence of boosting support for the DPP. This year, however, China has largely remained calm, but for some pointed references to the Anti-Secession Law.
In fact it was America's opposition to the referendum that brought the debate to life in Taiwan. Tired of the political bickering, and doubtful about Mr Chen's leadership, the Taiwanese public showed little interest until last month. Then John Negroponte, a deputy secretary of state, said the referendum was a mistake and that America considered it a step towards a declaration of independence.
Just as China has learned in the past, however, such criticism of moves towards de jure independence can backfire. America's reaction has convinced the DPP, already sceptical of the depth of American support for Taiwan, that it has nothing to lose by pursuing a campaign that is bound to harm ties. Even so, the referendum may not give it the backing it wants. Under Taiwan's referendum law, the proposal needs more than half the 16.8m eligible voters to cast their ballots and more than half of those who vote to support it. Even with the bonus of American opposition, that may be too high a bar.