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Minneapolis - St. Paul

Support a democratic, sovereign Taiwan

Richard Kagan

Minneapolis- St. Paul Star Tribune, Jan. 17, 2004

Kenneth Lieberthal (Commentary, Jan. 12) indulged in the fallacy of catastrophic conclusions by predicting that "developments in Taiwan could drag the United States and China into armed conflict."

Chen Shui-bian, president of Taiwan, has upset the United States by proposing a national referendum calling upon China to dismantle its 496 missiles aimed at Taiwan and to disclaim its right to attack Taiwan by force. Articles 12 and 13 of Taiwan's Constitution authorize the government to call for referendums and to protect the security of Taiwan.

The United States has used referendums since the early 20th century. And it has held referendums on many issues including foreign policy. Historically, a referendum can refer to the creation of a law or policy, and need not be limited to a local or national issue. There is a absolutely no reason to believe that the strategy leading toward the March 20 referendum "could lead directly to unimaginable tragedy."

What opposition to the referendum could lead to are:

  • A direct contradiction of American democratic principles. We are now in the midst of creating constitutions for Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet we are opposed to the use of a referendum in a democratic state.
  • A direct contradiction of historical knowledge. England allowed Germany to claim a One Germany policy in retaking part of Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, we (including my son) fought a war to keep Iraq from claiming that Kuwait was a province of Baghdad.
  • A direct challenge to enforcing the Taiwan Relations Act, which considers "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States . ... The preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people of Taiwan are hereby affirmed as objectives of the United States." Is a referendum equal to a boycott or embargo? It is China that is threatening the Taiwan Relations Act.

Lieberthal seems to forget two important issues:

  • The Pentagon's 2003 report stating that "Beijing apparently believes that the United States poses a significant long-term challenge. China has embarked upon a force modernization program intended to diversity its options for use of force against potential United States intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict." The report says the Chinese are already preparing to strike at the United States and any third party's "high value assets."
  • Lieberthal labels President Chen as "blatantly challenging the existing framework" of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. He makes no mention of Chen's repeated attempts to engage with China.

It is China's refusal to negotiate with Taiwan, its military buildup and its attempt to isolate Taiwan internationally that has "blatantly" challenged the status quo. A "catastrophe" may occur if the United States abandons a democratic and sovereign society and causes both Washington and Taipei to kneel or kowtow to Beijing.

Richard Kagan, St. Paul, is a professor of history at Hamline University.