Speech to U.S.-Taiwan Business Council – Thomas J. Christensen
… The particular referendum supported by President Chen concerns us considerably more than would a generic referendum on applying to the UN. What worries us, very specifically, is the issue of name change. This draft referendum raises the question of what Taiwan should be called in the international community. Moreover, it does so in what could be interpreted by many to be a legally-binding popular vote. In an ideal world, we would not have to worry about this. In the vernacular, we all speak of “Taiwan.” The State Department does, people in Taiwan do, even Beijing does. So why worry about using the same word in this more formal political and legal context? The simple reality is that, in the world of cross-Strait relations, political symbolism matters, and disagreements over it could be the source of major tensions or even conflict. President Chen recognized the importance of such “symbolic” issues in 2000 and 2004 when he promised our President and the international community not to pursue a change in Taiwan’s official name, and he has reaffirmed that promise repeatedly.
It is the apparent pursuit of name change in the referendum, therefore, that makes the initiative appear to us to be a step intended to change the status quo. Arguments that the referendum, even if passed, would not amount to a pursuit of name change, frankly, strike us as purely legalistic. After all, if the specific nomenclature does not matter, why include it in the referendum in the first place? At a fundamental level, such legalistic arguments from supporters of the referendum make it seem that they do not take seriously Taiwan’s commitments to the United States and the international community, are willing to ignore the security interests of Taiwan’s most steadfast friend, and are ready to put at some risk the security interests of the Taiwan people for short-term political gain. Our bottom line is that the potential downsides of such an initiative for Taiwan and U.S. interests are potentially large, and, as with any UN referendum, the benefits for Taiwan’s international status are non-existent, so we must oppose such an initiative strongly.
I would like to face head-on the accusation that the U.S. position on the referendum constitutes interference in Taiwan’s democracy. On behalf of the U.S. Government, I reject this accusation categorically. Given the decades of America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and support for its democratization, the idea just does not stand up to scrutiny. The reality is that democracies can and do disagree over policies. It happens all the time around the world. Moreover, friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise direction. The U.S. obligation is even stronger, given our interest in Taiwan’s security. After all, it is not just Taiwan’s peace and stability that Taipei’s actions may threaten.
The United States has neither the power nor the right to tell the Taiwan people what they can and cannot do. As friends, however, we feel it is our obligation to warn that the content of this particular referendum is ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful. Bad public policy initiatives are made no better for being wrapped in the flag of “democracy.” Fortunately, if the referendum goes forward unchanged, we anticipate that Taiwan’s perceptive, intelligent citizens will see through the rhetoric and make a sound judgment that the referendum does not serve their interests because it will be fundamentally harmful to Taiwan’s external relations.
Beyond the obvious threat to stability in the Taiwan Strait, the United States also opposes the proposed referendum because it will do the exact opposite of what it promises: it will limit, not expand, Taiwan’s international space. Arguments to the contrary sound heroic, but they stand in opposition to the evidence all around us. I can say this to you with real experience, because it is the State Department that takes the lead in the U.S. Government in trying to help preserve and expand the Taiwan people’s international space. The frustrating truth is that needlessly provocative actions by Taipei strengthen Beijing’s hand in limiting Taiwan’s space and scare away potential friends who might help Taiwan.
This is again an area where we have to acknowledge a tough truth. Whether we like it or not, most countries in the world accept Beijing’s characterization of Taiwan, and, when energized, the PRC can call in overwhelming support to marginalize Taipei. The Taiwan people are, of course, long accustomed to PRC pressure, and we are certainly not telling them not to resist these efforts; our own position is far from passive. That 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. The referendum on applying to the UN under the name Taiwan is just such a frontal assault with no hope of changing Taiwan’s actual status on the international stage while increasing cross-Strait tensions and alienating potential supporters of Taiwan’s increased international space. [Full Text]