United Nations for Taiwan? How will China and the U.S. React?

The Taiwanese proposals for referenda on whether and how to join the United Nations have caused serious concern in both the U.S. and China. After the high profile warnings sent from the U.S. in September, frequent communications between the U.S. and China, and parades sponsored by the pan-blue (KMT) and pan-green (DPP) political forces in Taiwan on September 15 and October 24, the situation has entered a whole new stage. Currently, there is no sign that either the pan-green or the pan-blue would retreat from or modify their referendum proposals, and the referenda of “UN for Taiwan” or “Back to UN (as the ROC)” are very likely to be held in March 2008 in Taiwan. How the U.S. and China will deal with this situation over the next five months is a key question for stability in East Asia and deserves our attention.

The United States has fully expressed its opposition to the DPP’s UN for Taiwan referendum through a series statements in different fora by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Dennis Wilder, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen. The Christensen speech was particularly comprehensive and incisive, not only openly confronting the Chen Shui-bian administration but also raising the confrontation to a tit-for-tat level. The attitude of the U.S. government is very clear: the referendum that proposes to join the UN in the name of Taiwan is a step toward Taiwan independence, and would damage the half century-long bipartisan policy of ambiguity, i.e. the status quo defined by the U.S., on which the U.S. has been relying to keep the balance across the Taiwan Strait. The theory underpinning the general U.S. approach to the China-Taiwan question seems to be that sovereignty over Taiwan is undetermined: the U.S. on the one hand does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state and thus opposes Taiwan’s efforts to join international organizations whose membership is limited to sovereign states (of course including the UN), but on the other hand it opposes the statement that “Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.” The U.S. government stressed this point in the 9-point letter of understanding it sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on July 15, 2007.

The reason that the U.S. is upset over the DPP’s UN for Taiwan referendum is that it threatens to undermine the strategic ambiguity of the U.S. and forces the U.S. to make a choice between China and Taiwan. It is impossible for the U.S. to give up Taiwan due to its own strategic interests, but the U.S. national interest is also intertwined with China, a potential superpower, and the relationship needs to be maintained. The State Department, the National Security Council, and a bipartisan majority of the Congress, as well as China and Taiwan experts in the think tank community, all tend to identify the UN for Taiwan referendum as a challenge to the status quo; it unsettles the situation in the Taiwan Strait and thus severely threatens the interests of the United States. Chen Shui-bian and his DPP government are now facing overwhelming pressure from the U.S.

Then, what else can the United States do to “punish” Taiwan? Delay or even cancel arms sales? Subtly encourage one or more of Taiwan’s Central American allies to shift diplomatic recognition to China? Such measures of course would shock Taiwan, but some side-effects would be undesirable and may not be totally in alignment with U.S. interests. Certainly, the U.S. would prefer that leaders in Taiwan take it upon themselves to rescind the referendum proposals, but it is clear that hope for that is slender. So, the U.S. has appealed directly to the Taiwanese voters, hoping, in the words of Deputy Assistant Secretary Christensen, that “Taiwan’s perceptive, intelligent citizens will see through the rhetoric and make a sound judgment.”

What if the referendum passes anyway? In that case, the U.S. can only resort to limited damage control. It would have to seek clarification of the result of the referendum from the president-elect, and assurances about how the result may be translated into policy. If promises similar to Chen Shui-bian’s year 2000 “Four No’s and One Without” statement were made, for example in the May 2008 inaugural speech, that would be reassuring to the U.S. Of course, the plans of the winner of the 2008 election, the margin of approval by the electorate, and China’s responses to the issues would all play a role in deciding the ultimate impact of a successful referendum.

The evolution of U.S. policy toward Taiwan will also depend on the attitude of China. Until now, China has been basically satisfied with what the U.S. has done. However, the PRC really is concerned more about the precedent of holding a referendum on issues related to independence than it is about the result of such a referendum. Even if the referendum fails in 2008, it can be repeated in 2012. Once the precedent is established, there could be no end in sight. The PRC also worries that the referendum will further strengthen the DPP’s line that “it is the Taiwanese who should determine the fate of Taiwan”; depending on the results of the voting, the new president may be able to claim he has a mandate to pursue formal steps toward independence. Even if the results are not this dramatic, a successful referendum will influence the development of Taiwanese public opinion, and hurt the prospects for final unification. Hence stopping the referendum before it takes place remains a priority goal of the PRC.

What can the PRC do to “deter” the referendum? In theory, there are multiple choices including, ultimately, military deterrence. Still, considering the domestic and international environment before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the most attractive measure for Beijing would be some form of psychological warfare. For example, China’s National People’s Congress may pass a resolution announcing that the Taiwanese referendum violates its Anti-Secession Law and therefore provides the legal basis for the PRC government to undertake “non-peaceful means.” Or, China could abruptly announce a suspension of the “mini three links” between the two sides and stop some other exchange programs, which could cause panic in Taiwan and maybe lead to a stock market drop. In addition, the PRC could impose further, and even more humiliating, conditions on Taiwan’s participation in the 2008 Olympics.

But it appears that China has not yet turned its full attention toward Taiwan. In his speech to the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao defied expectations and did not criticize Taiwan’s referenda; instead, he offered to open peace talk with Taiwan. In contrast, in September the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC’s State Council made a strong statement that China “has made the necessary preparations to deal with a serious situation.” President Hu’s dramatic statement points to the growing sophistication of Chinese policy-making toward to Taiwan. Still, what is the “serious situation” and what are the “necessary preparations” mentioned by the Taiwan Affairs Office? Taiwan and the outside world would like to know. Even the decision making clique in Beijing might not have good answers yet. The PRC has learned from previous experience that excessive measures against Taiwan can backfire. While the precedent of a referendum is distasteful to Beijing, the PRC has indicated that it is satisfied with U.S. pressure on Taipei. This suggests that the PRC probably will chose to wait and observe the referendum results, and then see if it can rely once again on the U.S. to counter this ploy by Chen Shui-bian.