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Admonition from U.S. shouldn’t go unheeded

In recent months the government of President Chen Shui-bian has been pushing for Taiwan to join the United Nations using the island’s geographical name instead of the country’s official title, the Republic of China. President Chen has decided to hold a referendum regarding the issue in tandem with next March’s presidential election. These actions have not only triggered heated debate and fierce controversy on the island, but also evoked concern in the United States, which is Taiwan’s oldest and most important ally.

The U.S. government, worried that these measures will aggravate tensions across the Taiwan Strait, has time and again advised President Chen to think twice. It is apparent the attempt to make Taiwan a U.N. member is designed to make Taiwan an independent state. President Chen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) insist Taiwan and the Chinese mainland are two separate nations.

However, the United States has all along opposed Taiwan’s seeking statehood. Washington is against the proposed referendum.

President Chen’s U.N. referendum won’t accomplish anything in changing the island’s international status or Washington’s “One China” policy, but rather box in the newly elected president when he takes office next May, said Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), while speaking to the island’s media on Tuesday.

During a roundtable discussion organized a day after he met with President Chen to discuss the referendum issues, Burghardt expressed Washington’s concern that the referendum proposed by Chen will destabilize the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

“We are concerned that the proposed referendum on U.N. membership under the name ‘Taiwan’ unnecessarily threatens stability in the Taiwan Strait and thus your security,” he said.

Burghardt said that Washington is not opposed to Taiwan’s right to hold referenda in principle, though it opposes initiatives that run counter to President Chen’s previous commitments to the international community. Chen has repeatedly declared that he will not, during his term of office, pursue de jure independence or make a change in the status quo vis-a-vis the mainland.

The AIT chief’s remarks were in line with similar comments by other U.S. officials in recent months.

One of the officials was U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who said on Aug. 27 that Washington opposes the planned referendum because it is perceived as a step towards a declaration of Taiwan’s independence and an alteration of the status quo. And on Dec. 6, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Thomas Christensen said that the United States supports Taiwan’s having a wholesome democracy but that a process packaged as democracy is not true democracy.

Some observers believe that these remarks reflect the U.S. government’s tendency to maintain good relations with Beijing. This observation is right. However, Washington is also concerned about the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing cannot possibly tolerate Taiwan’s declaration of independence. Such a move by Taiwan is bound to invite a military attack from across the Taiwan Strait. The independence-minded government of President Chen knows this, which is why it is careful about taking steps toward de jure independence.

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