China Lashes Out at Taiwan's UN Push, Proposed US Arms Sale

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Beijing stepped up its Taiwan rhetoric over the weekend, condemning the island's leader for promoting a referendum on joining the United Nations and criticizing Washington for new plans to sell weaponry to Taipei clearly intended to defend it against potential Chinese attack.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the proposed arms sales constituted wanton interference in China's internal affairs and violated commitments the U.S. had made in joint communiques in the 1980s.

The Xinhua news agency quoted her as describing the current situation across the Taiwan Strait as "complicated and sensitive" and saying the U.S. should stop sending "wrong signals" to secessionist elements in Taiwan.

Last Wednesday, the Pentagon's arms-sales agency -- the Defense Security and Cooperation Agency -- announced plans to sell Taiwan 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft and SM-2 Standard missiles for its Navy destroyers "for self-defense against air and cruise missile threats."

The combined value of the sale could be as high as $2.2 billion, it said.

Pentagon reports say the primary threat facing Taiwan comes from the communist-ruled mainland, which has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent the island -- a rebel province, in its view -- from formally breaking away. China is reported to have deployed more than 1,000 missiles along its coastline opposite Taiwan in recent years.

Although the U.S. cut normal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 in favor of the People's Republic of China (PRC), it is committed under the Taiwan Relations Act passed that same year to protect the island from unprovoked aggression and provide it with military assistance.

The situation across the Taiwan Strait during the ensuing two decades remained static, with occasional flare-ups, until Taiwan's steady move towards greater democracy led, in 2000, to President Chen Shui-bian's election.

In line with his pro-independence agenda and growing sentiments on the island in favor of a separate Taiwanese identity, Chen has pushed for greater participation in international forums, only to have annual applications for U.N. membership shot down by China.

He now aims, before leaving office when his second term ends next March, to hold a referendum on whether Taiwan and its 23 million people should be allowed to join the world body. The vote would be held alongside presidential elections to pick his successor.

Although the referendum would hold little weight in the international community, China is firmly opposed to the plan. The U.S. government is also urging Taiwan not to go ahead with a step so provocative to the mainland.

"Friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise direction," U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen told a U.S.-Taiwan defense industry conference in Annapolis, Md., last week.

"The U.S. obligation is even stronger, given our interest in Taiwan's security," he added. "After all, it is not just Taiwan's peace and stability that Taipei's actions may threaten."

In a speech that was unusually frank for remarks on Taiwan by a State Department official and caused a stir in Taiwan, Christensen said the U.S. was not telling Taiwan not to resist Beijing's pressure.

However, he said, "Taipei needs to push back intelligently and in a sophisticated manner that plays to its strengths. Frontal assaults on Beijing's sensitivities are bound to fail and, at the end of the day, leave Taipei further behind."

'Necessary preparations'

At a large public rally on Saturday, Chen repeated his view that Taiwan is a sovereign state and urged supporters to back the proposed referendum.

Beijing's State Council, a cabinet-level body, reacted to the rally -- which Taiwanese media said drew 200,000 people -- by warning that it was keeping a close eye on developments in Taiwan and has made the "necessary preparations to cope with any serious situation."

A spokesman for the Council's Taiwan Affairs Office said Beijing would never allow anyone to separate Taiwan from the motherland in any manner.

Taiwan's government office responsible for relations with the mainland retorted that the rally had been an expression of the Taiwanese people's protest against China's military threat against their democratic way of life.

Meanwhile, a public relations battle over the referendum continues among expatriate communities abroad, as Taiwanese and Chinese officials argue their respective cases in the opinion pages of newspapers from Jerusalem to Copenhagen.

In Washington, D.C., a group called the Alliance for China's Peaceful Reunification sent a letter to lawmakers appealing for the U.S. to maintain a "one China" policy and calling the referendum plan a risky move.

Chinese-American organizations met in Los Angeles Saturday and issued a statement urging Taiwan to call off the plan.

On the same day, more than 3,000 Taiwanese-Americans participated in a rally outside U.N. headquarters in New York City, urging membership for Taiwan. The General Assembly begins its annual session on Tuesday.

Xinhua on Monday quoted a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar, Wu Yi, as saying Chen was only pushing the referendum to conceal his own corruption and political weakness and to boost his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the March presidential election.

A DPP candidate will run against one from the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), which favors better ties with the mainland but is also supportive of joining the U.N., and held a rival weekend rally focusing on the issue.

The origins of the China-Taiwan dispute go back to the civil war of 1949, when the then-Republic of China's KMT government fled to Taiwan, and Mao Tse-tung's communists established the PRC in Beijing. The KMT ruled Taiwan, mostly with an autocratic hand, until Chen's DPP won democratic election in 2000.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow