Preempting China's Missiles

The elected president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, has come up with a clever, soft way to counter a clumsy, hard threat by the unelected leaders of mainland China.

He plans a March 20 referendum to ask voters if they want to tolerate China deploying missiles - nearly 500 so far - just across the Taiwan Strait.

For this small, if contrived, display of democracy, Mr. Chen was scorned by George W. Bush on Tuesday during a visit by China's prime minister.

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Of course, it's already clear Taiwan doesn't want to be intimidated by a steady buildup of missiles. And yes, Chen may be cynically using this growing military threat to enhance his reelection chances next year.

But Mr. Bush might have shown more empathy toward Taiwan's concerns by recalling what President Kennedy did when the Soviet Union put missiles 90 miles off Florida in Cuba. The US almost started a preemptive war. By comparison, Chen's referendum would be the height of restraint, and a good use of democracy as a defensive weapon.

Simply put, China doesn't want Taiwan to start using referendums. The island nation's voters might someday declare official independence and inspire Tibet, Hong Kong, or other parts of modern China to split off. China wants to keep a credible military threat to prevent a vote in favor of what already exists.

Bush sided with China because he doesn't want a cross-straits military flare-up, like one that occurred in 1996. And he needs Beijing's help this election year to suppress the issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions and reduce the perceived impact of China's economy on US jobs.

As a model democracy for China and much of Asia, Taiwan shouldn't be treated so harshly by the US, while China's missile buildup should be.

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