Taiwan’s president assured Washington on Wednesday that he has no plans to provoke China by seeking a permanent split with the communist giant, responding to the sharpest rebuke from America since Chen Shui-bian took office three years ago.
But Chen refused to back down on the issue that’s causing the rare friction with the United States — plans to hold a March 20 “defensive referendum” demanding that China remove hundreds of missiles pointing at Taiwan.
“We ... urge the international community not to treat China’s military threats and its deployment of missiles as a natural state of affairs,” Chen said.
“A defensive referendum is for avoiding war and to help keep the Taiwanese people free of fear,” Chen said. “It is also for preserving the status quo” with China.
Beijing opposes the referendum because it fears the poll would lead to a vote on whether Taiwan should seek a permanent split with China. Since the sides separated amid civil war in 1949, China has insisted that Taiwan must unify eventually or face war.
America has tried to maintain the delicate balance between the rivals divided by the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
Bush warns Taiwan
On Tuesday, President Bush joined in and issued an unusually stern warning to the Taiwanese president during a news conference after a meeting in Washington with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
When asked if he wanted Chen to cancel the March 20 referendum, Bush didn’t directly answer the question. But with the Chinese premier at his side, Bush said Washington opposes “any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo.”
Bush also said he opposed “comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan” that indicate that Chen “may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo.”
The U.S. president also didn’t object when the Chinese president thanked Bush for joining China in opposing Taiwanese independence. It has long been U.S. policy to remain neutral on the independence issue and not to take a position on the eventual outcome in the Taiwan Strait.
Philip Yang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University, said Bush’s words signaled a shift in support away from Chen.
“The U.S. is moving a little bit more to the Beijing position,” Yang said.
Protecting the delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait is important for Washington because U.S. force could get quickly sucked into a war. America is required by U.S. law to assist in Taiwan’s defense, and it has moved to protect the island before.
But the United States has hinted that Taiwan might be on its own if it sparks a war with unilateral moves to change the status quo. Bush on Tuesday was trying to remind Chen of this, said David M. Lampton, professor of China studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“What he (Bush) has done today is to make it clear that Chen Shui-bian did not have a blank check to be filled out in American blood,” Lampton said.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Eugene Chien told reporters that he saw no change in U.S. policy, but he said officials realized that they had to do a better job explaining the referendum issue to Washington.
Chen responded to Bush’s comments while meeting with visiting Congressman Dan Burton, R-Ind., who is a strong supporter of Taiwan.
As he spoke, the defiant Taiwanese president used chopping gestures with his hands to emphasize his points.
“We have no intention to change the status quo, and we won’t allow the status quo to be changed,” Chen said.
He said that it’s China’s choice to oppose democracy and political reform on the mainland. But he added that Beijing shouldn’t try to block Taiwan’s efforts to deepen its democracy and freedoms by holding a referendum.
The president also urged Washington to consider Taiwan’s point of view.
“What’s democracy? What’s peace? What’s threatening? What’s provocative? It’s absolutely not something that Chinese leaders can unilaterally define,” he said.
Since his upset election in 2000, Chen has prided himself on his warm relations with America. Maintaining the friendly ties with Taiwan’s most important friend is crucial for his re-election campaign.
During the recent tensions, the opposition has accused Chen of recklessly stirring up trouble with China and America.