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– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Taiwan, China, and U.S. in Arms Referendum Imbroglio

Wade Boese

After provoking a stern rebuke from the United States, Taiwan in mid-January modified a proposed March 20 referendum regarding China’s deployment of ballistic missiles aimed at the island. The move appeared to mollify Washington, but Beijing remains upset.

The initial referendum text asked voters to weigh in on whether China should end its deployment of some 500 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and revoke its threats to use force against the island. The amended referendum now simply questions whether Taiwan should buy more missile defense systems if China does not withdraw its missile deployments and whether Taipei should negotiate a “peace and stability” framework with Beijing.

The referendum—the island’s first—was proposed last fall by Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian, a longtime advocate for Taiwanese independence who is currently seeking re-election. (See ACT, January/February 2004.) Both Beijing and Washington objected to the proposal. China perceived the referendum as a sly attempt to put Taiwan on a path to declare independence, which China resolutely opposes because it wants the island returned to the mainland’s control. The United States worried such a vote might plunge China and Taiwan into armed conflict.

Standing next to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao after a Dec. 9, 2003, White House meeting, President George W. Bush warned, “The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

China was not appeased by the change in the referendum’s language. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan fumed Jan. 18, “This is a unilateral provocation against the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits and its essence is to make way for Taiwan’s independence in the name of referendum in the future.”

Washington has reserved official comment on the new wording, but it also has been pushing Taiwan to buy missile defense systems for the past few years
. Taiwan has pleaded it does not have the funding.

Although the United States stands ready to supply Taiwan with arms, it takes issue with growing European interest in resuming weapons deals with China. France and Germany are spearheading an effort to get the European Union (EU) to end its arms embargo against Beijing that has been in place since the Chinese government violently crushed public protests at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Javier Solana, the EU’s top foreign policy and security official, has recently suggested that the embargo is likely to be repealed, although when remains unclear.

Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher Jan. 28 recommended against such an action. “We believe that the U.S. and European prohibitions on arms sales [to China] are complementary, were imposed for the same reasons—specifically, serious human rights abuses—and that those reasons remain valid today,” he said.

Not surprisingly, China views the matter differently. On Feb. 12, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue deemed the EU arms embargo a “relic of the Cold War.” She added, “It is our hope that…this anachronism would be comprehensively resolved as soon as possible.”