In the midst of a heated re-election campaign, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian has proposed a referendum demanding China end its deployment of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan. Washington and Beijing as well as rival Taiwanese politicians all oppose the first-time vote.
The proposed referendum is scheduled for March 20, which coincides with Taiwan’s presidential election. According to Chen, the referendum would call upon China to end its deployment of nearly 500 ballistic missiles along its coast across from Taiwan and renounce the possible use of force against Taiwan.
China claims Taiwan is a renegade province that should be reunified with the mainland. Beijing routinely says it prefers peaceful reunification, but it always publicly reserves the right to resort to force, particularly if Taiwan declares independence.
After a Dec. 9 White House meeting with President George W. Bush, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing saw the proposed referendum as designed to “split Taiwan away from China.” He added that “[s]uch separatist activities are what the Chinese side can absolutely not accept and tolerate.” Wen did soften his tone somewhat by noting that, “so long as there is a glimmer of hope, we would not give up our efforts for peaceful reunification.”
Bush also took exception to Chen’s proposal. He warned that the United States opposes moves by either Beijing or Taipei to upset the delicate relationship between the two. Bush bluntly stated in April 2001 that the United States would do “whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack. But standing next to Wen, Bush stated, “[T]he comments and actions by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”
Chen disavowed in an extensive Dec. 6 interview with The New York Times that the proposed referendum had anything to do with independence and compared Taiwan’s current situation to the 1962 U.S.-Soviet showdown over Moscow’s attempt to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba. He also said Taiwan’s democracy should not be sacrificed by the United States for better relations with China.
Washington has spoken out against China’s missile deployments and aggressively pushed Taiwan to purchase missile defense systems to counter the Chinese buildup. (See ACT, June 2003.) Taiwan claims missile defenses are too expensive. For its part, China has strongly opposed the U.S. sale of missile defenses and all other arms to the island.