Taiwan Pushes Ahead with Referendum Plan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The Taiwanese people appear to be divided over their government's plan to hold a referendum next year calling on China to remove missiles aimed at the island. That's according to an opinion poll, following President Bush's statement opposing the referendum proposal.

President Chen Shui-bian has vowed to press ahead, despite White House opposition and despite warnings from some Taiwanese lawmakers that doing so could risk punitive measures by the U.S.

In Washington, Taiwan's supporters in Congress have written to Bush, urging him to reconsider his stance.

With the scheduled vote just three months off, 43 percent of respondents in an opinion poll carried out by Taiwan's TVBS television network said they supported the planned referendum, while 38 percent opposed it.

Another question found that 44 percent of respondents felt Taiwan should not have to consider Washington's stance when planning the referendum, while 42 percent disagreed.

China worries that holding its first referendum will set a precedent, inevitably leading to a vote on whether the island should formally declare independence from the communist mainland.

After meeting with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao last week, Bush warned the Taiwanese president not to make any unilateral steps toward changing the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

The planned referendum, to be held simultaneously with presidential elections next March, will ask Taiwanese voters to voice their opposition to China's military threat, and in particular call on Beijing to remove almost 500 missiles targeting the island.

China has warned that any attempt to split away will be met with force. The two sides separated during a civil war in 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese government relocated to the island called Formosa.

Taiwan has since then become a thriving, capitalist and increasingly democratic nation, but one denied a place in the global community because of Chinese pressure on foreign governments and international institutions.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the U.S. announced it was dropping diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing. It mains quasi-official ties with the government in Taipei, and is committed under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.

Chen has made it clear the referendum will go ahead, while insisting that it would reinforce the status quo, rather than upset it.

In a rousing campaign speech in his home county, he declared that no government could prohibit Taiwan from exercising the "basic human right" of holding a democratic referendum.

Chen reiterated the argument that the referendum was unrelated to the question of Taiwan's independence or unification with the mainland, saying it did not aim to change the status quo.

But the Central News Agency also quoted him as playing down any differences with the U.S., during a meeting of his Democratic Progressive Party Tuesday.

Chen reportedly told the meeting he fully supported Bush's comments, which he said had two points - that neither side of the Taiwan Strait should change the status quo unilaterally, and that Beijing should not try to sort out its differences with Taiwan by force.

The referendum question, and Chen's timetable for a new Taiwanese constitution by 2008, has become the central issue in the presidential election campaign.

Chen currently runs a little behind the main opposition candidate, Lien Chan of the Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) party, which ruled Taiwan for half a century before being defeated by Chen in 2000.

The KMT, which is critical of what it sees as Chen's pro-independence leanings, said Tuesday it opposed the referendum plan.

Lien said it did not require a referendum to demonstrate that Taiwanese believed the missiles based along China's coastline facing Taiwan posed a real threat.

Some opposition lawmakers are concerned that Taiwan could pay a heavy price if it presses ahead with the referendum.

Lawmaker Chang Hsiao-yen, who served as foreign minister in a former KMT government, warned this week that if Taiwan went ahead, it could face the prospect of U.S. sanctions.

Washington could end official military and government exchanges and take other punitive measures, if it considers that Taiwan bears responsibility for "disturbing the security of the Taiwan Strait" by holding the vote, he told a parliamentary committee.

Ruling party lawmakers disagreed, with one accusing Chang of "crying wolf."

Meanwhile, leaders of the U.S. Congressional Taiwan Caucus have sent a letter to the White House saying the message Bush gave last week "would be seen as a great victory for China and a defeat for Taiwan's democratic reforms."

It could also "send the wrong signal to the international community that the United States is not fully committed to expanding democracy," wrote the four co-chairs, Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).

"The continued build-up of missiles and military exercises on China's southeast coast remind us that democratic Taiwan and its people face a constant and imminent threat from an authoritarian regime."

The bipartisan caucus has more than 120 members.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow