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Taiwan’s Losing Battle

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 26, 2007

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Taiwan’s latest bid to enter the United Nations under its own name and hold a national referendum on the issue has generated criticism from both China and Taiwan’s major ally, the United States. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen called the referendum “ill conceived and potentially quite harmful” (PDF) and said such a step ignored Taiwan’s national security interests for short-term political gain. The United Nations, which decided to give the China seat to Beijing in 1971, has rejected all applications from Taiwan to join, including in a vote this month (AP).

Domestically, support for independence appears high; one hundred thousand people recently marched on Taiwan’s streets in support of the referendum on joining the UN (BBC). Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has slammed Washington for siding with China (DPA). But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says Washington is opposed to any initiative that appears “designed to change Taiwan’s status unilaterally” (TaipeiTimes).

Maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is of great concern for Washington and a highly sensitive issue for China. China has threatened military force if Taiwan declares formal independence and Beijing’s “one China” policy says Taiwan is a part of China that will one day be reunited with the mainland.

Critics have accused Chen of pro-independence moves to improve his party’s standing in the forthcoming elections in March 2008 and attempting to alter the status quo. But others say it is China that has continually sought to alter the status quo by amassing military forces aimed at Taiwan and refusing to engage in any diplomatic talks with the island’s elected government (WashTimes).

China is also blamed for using its growing economic and political power to isolate Taiwan. A shrinking number of countries recognize an independent Taiwan in comparison with two decades ago. Despite expanding economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan, there has been no breakthrough on the political front. Analysts say the 9/11 attacks and the need to bolster ties with Beijing changed the Bush administration’s priorities. Prior to 9/11, Bush made statements in favor of defending Taiwan that many observers saw as moving the United States away from its traditional policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward a stronger emphasis on Taiwan's interests, generating some criticism (Cato).

Washington maintains that its policy towards Taiwan has been consistent. It is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taipei with defensive weapons to maintain a balance of power across the strait. Even amidst the flurry of disagreement on the proposed referendum, the Pentagon recently announced possible military sales worth more than $2.2 billion to Taipei. China, fearing this will further embolden Chen towards pushing for island’s independence, urged Washington to cancel the deal (AFP).

Even though squabbles between Taiwan and China regularly bring up talks of war, a cross-straits conflict is hardly imminent. Beijing is not likely to risk any controversial military action (TIME) in the run-up to the Olympic Games it is hosting next August. To try to smooth over the fallout over plans to include the island in the Olympic torch relay, China invited Taiwanese to participate in activities related to the games.

CFR Senior Fellow Adam Segal tells CFR.org that Washington is constrained in maintaining peace in the strait and therefore, diplomatically all it can do is “support the status quo.” The next president has his work cut out for him—to assure Washington the new administration will be less provocative.

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