Taiwan's War of Words with the U.S.

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Tina Fineberg / AP

A rally outside the United Nations building in support of Taiwan's U.N. membership bid, New York City, Sept. 15, 2007.

What's in a name? For Taiwan, the answer may be survival.

Over the past seven years in office, President Chen Shui-bian has pushed an agenda focused on a sovereign Taiwan independent of Beijing, which considers the territory an inseparable part of China. But Chen's latest political gambit, a public referendum next year on the island's bid for membership in the United Nations, has done more than elicit sharp criticism and veiled threats from China. It's also caused frictions with its main military defender, the United States.

In late August, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte declared Chen's proposal "a mistake." The State Department has regularly said the U.S. opposes Taiwan's membership in international organizations that require statehood, including the United Nations and the World Health Organization. Negroponte called the vote a step towards "a declaration of independence," urging Taiwan's leaders to "behave in a responsible manner." The referendum, scheduled to take place alongside presidential elections in March, will ask voters whether the island should join the U.N. under the name Taiwan. It's a provocative moniker: unlike previous applications under its official name, the Republic of China, the use of Taiwan is meant to drive home Chen's contention that the island is completely separate from the mainland, and implies a move toward a permanent break.

Any request for U.N. admission by Taiwan is largely symbolic. As a member of the Security Council, China can veto any application, and Taiwan has tried — and failed — to regain membership more than a dozen times since being expelled in 1971, when the U.N. granted China's seat to Beijing. American censure, therefore, comes mostly out of a desire to avoid upsetting what has always been a tenuous peace between the mainland and Taiwan. In July, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang warned the proposed vote could "have a grave impact on cross-Straits relations and seriously endanger peace and stability across the Straits and Asia-Pacific region."

But neither Chinese nor American opposition has done much to dampen Taiwanese enthusiasm for the referendum. On Saturday, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in the southern port city of Kaohsiung to rally in favor of the referendum and seemingly in support of Chen's vision of a sovereign Taiwan. More than 3,000 Taiwanese expatriates attended a second protest outside U.N. headquarters in New York City. A poll released earlier this month by a Taipei-based think tank found that 47% of respondents disagreed with the U.S.'s position that the referendum was a step towards independence; three-quarters said they already see Taiwan as independent. China condemned this weekend's demonstrations, warning Sunday that Beijing was now preparing for a "serious situation."

A cross-straits war, however, is hardly imminent. For its part, Beijing cannot risk any embarrassing military action in the run-up to the Olympic games next August. And Taipei-based observers say that the referendum is less a declaration of independence than a political ploy by Chen to bolster his own legacy, as well as voter turnout in March for Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). "The ruling party doesn't have much to campaign about," says Chao Chien-min, a political science professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University. "The only thing they can do is portray the opposition as Beijing's collaborator." Chao says a similar strategy was key to the DPP's victory in the 2004 elections, which included Taiwan's first referendum. This time around, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) has proposed its own referendum on U.N. membership to compete on the same ballot as the DPP's, although it leaves open the question of whether to use a less contentious name — such as Chinese Taipei, the name its athletes use when competing in the Olympics. KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou held his own pro-U.N. membership rally on Saturday, attracting about 50,000 supporters to the central city of Taichung.

Chen has denied the referendum has anything to do with politics. The president also stridently insists the vote will occur no matter what the circumstances. That said, he has tried to temper U.S. resistance by making assurances to American officials that the naming controversy will go away after the elections. And Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Christensen on Sept. 11 followed up Negroponte's earlier comments by emphasizing the continuing friendship between the two entities. "We do not like having to express publicly our disagreement with the Chen Administration on this or any other policy," Christensen said.

In recent years, however, Taiwan has seen diplomatic support for its existence ebb, especially as China has grown as an economic superpower. In the 1970s, Taiwan was recognized by 65 nations. Today, only 24 mostly impoverished countries consider Taiwan independent. "We have to acknowledge a tough truth," Christensen said. "Most countries in the world accept Beijing's characterization of Taiwan, and, when energized, the PRC can call in overwhelming support to marginalize Taipei." Indeed, the U.S.'s vocal opposition to the referendum is being seen in Taiwan as more evidence of the influence China now wields. "Beijing now realizes the shortest route to Taipei is through Washington," says political commentator and former diplomat Loh I-cheng. "They are telling the U.S., 'It was you who spoiled this child, you should spank him.'"