In an interview with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV on Tuesday, John Negroponte, US deputy secretary of State, sent up a warning signal that the United States regards attempts by the authorities in Taiwan to hold a "United Nations membership referendum" on the island as a step toward the unilateral alteration of the status quo and asked that Taiwan avoid taking any provocative steps. This is by far the harshest warning by the Bush administration against Taiwan's attempted "UN membership referendum".
US criticism has never stopped since the Taiwan authorities started pushing for the "UN referendum".
For example, during his visit to Taiwan in the middle of June, Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the board of trustees of the American Institute in Taiwan, pressed Chen Shui-bian to reiterate his "four-nots" pledge (not to declare independence, not to change the name of the "Republic of China", not to push for a "two-states" idea, not to hold any referendum on "unification" and "independence"). At a press conference, Burghardt urged the "presidential candidates" from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang to be cautious in their words and deeds and refrain from staging any provocative actions against the mainland.
Also, the US State Department spokesman has stated time and again that the "UN membership referendum" does nothing for Taiwan but heighten the tensions across the Taiwan Straits.
Hsieh Chang-ting, the DPP's "presidential candidate", must have experienced the United States' anti-referendum mood during his US visit late last month. All the officials he met in Washington DC, whether from the State Department, the National Security Council or the Pentagon, were opposed to the "UN membership referendum".
Even "pro-Taiwan" US lawmakers shared the White House's position in this respect. For example, Shelley Berkley, one of the co-chairs of the Taiwan Caucus, told Hsieh Chang-ting that it is not the time for Taiwan to join the United Nations.
The US military demonstrates the same attitude. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander in chief of the US Pacific Command, touched on the opposition to Taiwan's "UN membership referendum". During his recent China visit, Admiral Michael Mullen, chief of Naval Operations, said that the United States would stick to the one-China policy, not support "Taiwan independence" and not encourage Taiwan to move toward that direction.
Turning a deaf ear to all this, Chen Shui-bian, however, is bent on having his own way. Hence Negroponte's warning. Three motives are driving Chen Shui-bian's "referendum on joining the United Nations in the name of Taiwan".
First, he intends to push for "de jure independence".
Chen Shui-bian came up with his "Taiwan independence" timetable in September 2003 on the occasion of the commemoration of the 17th anniversary of DPP's founding. It involved: holding a referendum in tandem with "presidential elections" in 2004; formulating a "new constitution" in 2006 and beginning to implement the "new constitution" in 2008, when he is to step down as "president".
It is crystal clear that it is absolutely impossible for Chen to craft a "new constitution" now that his second term expires in a matter of several months. So instead he came up with a substitute - "the referendum on Taiwan's UN membership".
The United Nations is an international organization composed of 192 sovereign states. In pushing for the island to join the United Nations under the name of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian is actually pressing the international community to recognize Taiwan as a "sovereign independent country". This is a sheer "Taiwan-independence" trick.
Second, he is trying to leave behind him a "political legacy".
Chen Shui-bian's days as a prominent figure on Taiwan's political stage are numbered. And many American scholars and researchers think he is a vanishing personality.
But he obviously will not take things lying down. Chen is eager to make sure he retains political influence after he steps down. For that purpose, it is imperative that he put forward an idea or notion for his successors to pursue, a sort of relay torch.
Third, Chen Shui-bian is trying to boost the pan-green camp's momentum ahead of next year's "presidential elections". Chen once pledged to have 10,000 meetings and conferences to discuss the formulation of the "new constitution", which is a kind of political mobilization.
The "UN membership referendum" is also a sort of political mobilization. Political mobilizations need a topic for discussion. The "new constitution" constitutes a topic for discussion and the "UN membership referendum" is a substitute topic. In this way, Chen hopes to stage a universal political mobilization in Taiwan to boost the morale of the pan-green camp and win over the wavering elements in the constituency for the goal of keeping the DPP in power.
This author believes that the Taiwan authorities will mend their ways now that the United States is so strongly opposed to the "referendum on UN membership", particularly after Negroponte's strongly worded remarks. The United States has a strong influence on Taiwan after all.
Chen Shui-bian himself may continue to stay in his old rut and refuse to budge an inch because his relations with the United States have gone sour once and for all, so he can afford to write himself off as hopeless and act recklessly. But the DPP cannot, nor can Hsieh Chang-ting. The DPP still needs US support, and at the very least they hope the United States will adopt an impartial stance over next year's "presidential elections" in Taiwan.
In this sense, the Bush administration's warning came as a telling blow on the DPP. The DPP cannot afford to remain obstinate any more.
The author is a researcher with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
(China Daily Augst 31, 2007)