Taiwan just completed a difficult and contentious episode in its evolution as a young democracy. President Chen Shui-bian apparently won reelection by a razor-thin margin. A controversial referendum on two national security issues, which Chen had backed, failed because not enough voters cast ballots.
As Taiwan conducted these democratic exercises, it might have expected moral support from the United States as a sister democracy. Such support was not forthcoming, however. Instead, the Bush administration succumbed to pressure from the People's Republic of China (PRC) and sought to discourage Taiwan from holding the referendum. There were also quiet but unmistakable signals from Washington that U.S. leaders considered Chen a disruptive figure and hoped he would not be reelected.
China's pressure on the United States was not surprising. The PRC considers Taiwan nothing more than a renegade province and views the referendum as the latest installment in an ongoing campaign of political separatism. From Beijing's perspective, the mere holding of a referendum on national security issues implies that Taiwan is rightfully an independent state. Moreover, Chinese leaders fear that the March vote is just the thin edge of the wedge. They suspect that sooner or later there will be a referendum on changing Taiwan's official name from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan or perhaps even a vote on declaring independence. The failure of the initial referendum will allay these concerns just marginally.
What was surprising and distressing was the Bush administration's response to China's pressure. How much the administration was willing to accommodate Beijing became evident in December 2003 during a visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. President Bush publicly scolded "Taiwan's leader" for seeking to change the political status of the island unilaterally and emphasized Washington's opposition to any unilateral actions. Chen's principal offense was his proposal to hold the March referendum.
That is no way for Washington to treat another democracy. It is unsavory for the United States to criticize a democratic polity for choosing to hold a referendum on a policy issue-however sensitive that issue might be. It is even worse to criticize such a basic exercise of democracy, as Bush did, while saying nothing about the PRC's destabilizing and provocative deployment of missiles across the Taiwan Strait.
The Bush administration has gone from one extreme to the other with regard to U.S. policy on the Taiwan issue. During the early months of his administration, the president gave a seemingly unconditional pledge to defend Taiwan from attack by mainland China-going significantly further than his predecessors had done. He followed that assurance by approving the largest arms sales package to Taiwan in nearly a decade. In marked contrast to the Clinton years, the Bush administration has not only tolerated but encouraged high-profile visits by Taiwanese leaders to the United States, despite Beijing's protests. Indeed, at one point in 2002, Taiwan's defense minister met "informally" with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz during a security conference sponsored by a research institute in Florida. That was the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Taiwanese officials since the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the PRC in 1979.
Then came the stark policy reversal in December 2003. What accounts for the Bush administration's change of attitude?
The reversal appears primarily to be a payoff to secure a greater effort from the PRC to help resolve the dangerous North Korean nuclear crisis. One can appreciate that decisions based on realpolitik are sometimes necessary, but in this case it probably was not necessary. Beijing does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea, and it will offer at least modest assistance to prevent that outcome regardless of the U.S. stance on Taiwan.
In any case, neither the earlier exuberantly pro-Taiwan policy nor the latest pro-Beijing posture of the Bush administration serves the best interests of the United States. Indeed, President Bush has managed to adopt the worst possible policy mix. The United States appears to be strong-arming another democracy even as it retains the obligation to defend Taiwan from attack if Beijing overestimates the extent of Washington's new accommodating policy.
It is not America's proper role to take a position regarding Taiwan's independence or other issues involving relations between Taipei and Beijing. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and the United States should respect that society's democratic prerogatives. At the same time, U.S. leaders should make it clear that Taiwan must incur all of the risks entailed in whatever policies it adopts. Specifically, Washington should inform Taipei that it will not become involved if an armed conflict erupts between Taiwan and the mainland over the issue of Taiwan's de facto independence.
Such an approach would treat the Taiwanese as intelligent adults instead of misbehaving U.S. dependents. It is the proper relationship between two democracies.