Taiwan tempers provocative question

A planned referendum on Taiwan's status prompts Chinese threats of war.

With new Chinese threats of war over Taiwan's separatist activies, officials in Taipei Wednesday went to great pains to say that Beijing is "misunderstanding" Taiwan's intentions, and "misperceiving" what a controversial referendum planned for next March would actually say.

In Monitor interviews, ruling party officials explained that Taiwan's first-ever referendum, just called by President Chen Shui-bian, will not touch the hot-button of independence. Rather, Taiwanese would probably be asked their views on China's military buildup, and whether citizens should be forced to accept China's "one country, two systems" formula of rule over the island.

China recently, and for the first time in two years, openly said it would go to war to stop Taiwan from formally separating its future status from that of the mainland. Wednesday, a colonel and a general in the People's Liberation Army went further - stating in graphic detail that Beijing would be prepared to accept a boycott of the 2008 Olympics, jeopardize its relations in Asia, and take the "necessary" casualties of war, to stop Taiwan from engaging in "splittist" activity.

"If they refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referenda as an excuse to seek Taiwan independence, they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war," said Luo Yuan, a PLA colonel, in articles carried by China's state-run news agency, Xinhua.

In March, Taiwan holds what is widely regarded here and in Beijing as a crucial election, during which the referendum will occur. The campaign is already in full swing. The outcome will decide whether the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party of Mr. Chen is reelected, or whether the island of 23 million will turn to the more unification-minded Nationalists (KMT), which ruled Taiwan from 1949 to 2000.

Beijing deeply opposes another four-year term for Chen, calculating this time period would be used by democrats in Taiwan to consolidate anti-China sentiment.

Last Saturday, following a demoralizing defeat in the Taiwan assembly over an expansive referendum law, Chen seized upon a little-noticed clause in the law allowing the chief executive to hold a referendum if there is a national-security threat. Stating that China's buildup of missiles on the Fujian coastline aimed at Taiwan are a threat, Chen, after little consultation with his inner circle, announced that he would hold a "defensive referendum" during the elections.

China deeply suspicious

Both the word and act of "referendum" is viewed with strong suspicion by Beijing, which sees it as a surrogate means of achieving independence.

Opponents quickly characterized Chen's sudden decision as irresponsible.

"I was surprised, since this referendum is completely unnecessary and provocative, and I think it will turn people off," argues KMT insider Su Chi, at the National Policy Foundation in Taipei.

Some analysts suggest Beijing's saber- rattling may be designed to help the KMT by introducing a fear factor among voters, and paint a picture of Chen as reckless. In previous years, Beijing's threats were seen to help the pro-independence candidates, but the dynamics may have changed.

Senior aides to Chen state that the concept of a referendum - viewed increasingly here as a democratic right - moved forward so quickly that Beijing has not understood it.

"We don't want the other side of the Taiwan Strait to become unmanageable because of a misunderstanding," says Joseph Wu, a close adviser to Chen. "In 1991, our party called for a referendum. But that background has changed, and I'm not sure it has been picked up yet by the Chinese leadership or generals. What many Chinese officials are allowed to read is filtered through a propaganda mechanism....

"The defensive referendum is thought to be equivalent to a Taiwan independence referendum, and it is not," he continues. "This is a national-security referendum. This is not a Taiwan independence referendum, and this president has said he is not going to do that. He has made it clear."

Analysts here pointed out that there is no clear road map to holding a referendum in Taiwan, and that it is possible several questions could be included.

Delicately worded options

Just how the sensitive referendum would be worded is suddenly a subject of intense speculation in Taipei. "The language will be skillfully tailored to make a case, but not trigger a crisis," says Alexander Huang, vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei.

One ruling party leader with ties to the president's office points out the wording may or may not include China in the outcome. "If you ask if the future of Taiwan should be decided by 23 million people, then Taiwan has sole veto power over its future," he stated. "If you ask if Taiwan should be decided by both sides peacefully in a mutually acceptable way, then both Taiwan and China have a veto."

Another senior member of Chen's team felt there will probably be two questions, one on a security threat, and one dealing with the issue of choice that arises from the threat.

"We want to facilitate a question concerning China's renouncing the use of force, or ask whether China should withdraw the 496 missiles aimed at us, and dismantle the sites. A second question might be on the one-country, two systems model. We have talked about this openly in the DPP. The question would be one of choice: Should Taiwan be forced to accept a 'one-country - two systems' model?"

A test of popular sentiment

At home and abroad, China regularly characterizes the population of Taiwan as solidly in favor of the "one China" principle.

Beijing uses the formula to claim ownership and sovereignty over the island, where 2 million Chinese nationalists escaped after losing a civil war in 1949.

"China is confident that Taiwanese will accept 'one country, two systems,'" a senior aide says. "We want to show whether or not that is true.

"But I want to stress that no decisions have been made about what questions will be put to voters," he adds. "This is a new development."

A recent poll by the Research Office of the Foreign Ministry in Taiwan found that only 2 percent of Taiwanese feel there is a chance of war by 2005.

Polls in China are an inexact science, to be sure. But one state agency, in a survey reprinted in the Wenhui Daily in Hong Kong, asked, "If Chen Shui-bian continues to divide China, what will you do?"

Some 97 percent said they would support "any action taken by the government, including military action."

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