March 22 looks to be a big day in Taiwan. That’s the day the island’s two major political parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang (KMT), face off in presidential elections. But the vote getting most of the international attention, particularly from across the Taiwan Strait in Beijing, are two referendum questions proposing Taiwan apply for UN membership (BBC). The two questions reflect the each party’s particular vision of Taiwan’s future. The referendum designed by the DPP, which favors independence for Taiwan, asks whether the government should seek to join the United Nations in the name of Taiwan. The KMT, which wants closer ties with China, will ask whether the island should seek to return to the United Nations with a pragmatic and flexible approach using Republic of China, its official name, Taiwan, or any other suitable designation.
These nuances apparently are lost on Beijing, which claimed the Chinese seat at the United Nations in 1971. China’s government has publicly warned Taiwan (Reuters) it may pay a heavy cost for its UN vote. Russia, Australia and United States have also condemned the idea, which the United States calls provocative (WashPost).
This latest round of heightened tensions across the strait has once again raised fears of armed hostilities between China and Taiwan, with all the geopolitical repercussions that would have for the United States and its allies in the Pacific Rim. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, in an interview with CFR.org, says the United States is concerned about the “military buildup on the PRC’s side of the strait.” According to some estimates, Beijing has roughly one thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan and continues to add to that number each month. Kenneth Allen of the CNA corporation, a U.S.-based research organization focusing on defense issues, says that for China, Taiwan, and the United States, “trying to decipher the difference between deterrent and aggressive actions is a major issue for regional stability.” China reiterated its concern (China Daily) over U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, which it fears is emboldening independence forces there.
The United States has consistently stated that its policy toward Taiwan is guided by the Three Communiqués and by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. But John J. Tkacik, Jr., a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes that U.S. policy toward Taiwan’s status has been “dogmatically agnostic” and Washington has “not formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and [has] not made any determination as to Taiwan's political status.” There is also “strategic ambiguity” in what the United States will actually do if a war breaks out in the strait, writes Alan D. Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center. “Taiwan should not assume that if it provokes war, the United States will necessarily get into it; the PRC should not assume that if it attacks Taiwan, the United States will stay out of it,” says Romberg.
The recent victory of the KMT party over the pro-independence DPP in Taiwan’s January legislative elections has led many experts to believe that relations between China and Taiwan may ease. As this Backgrounder explains, this has been a fragile relationship, and a constant source of tension for Washington. KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has proclaimed a “three no’s” policy—no unification, no independence, and no use of force—in outlining his planned approach to cross-strait relations. An op-ed in the Korea Times argues that Ma's construct appears to be aimed at “reassuring three main audiences: the people of Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the United States and international community in general.” Negroponte told CFR.org that the United States is urging China that it “shouldn’t try to deprive Taiwan of all of its political space.”