Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Ambiguities continue to blossom

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎

While most people in Taiwan think of diplomatic ambiguities as being connected with whether or not the US will come to the defense of their country, there are many other kinds. Debates in the US on the merits of ambiguity or clarity in our relations with Taiwan (and China) are endless. The argument against ambiguity is that the issue at hand could be misunderstood, risking serious tension or even conflict. The argument for ambiguity is that it may be the only way to get around an implacable difference allowing other matters to progress. The debate continues, but one other advantage is that verbal struggles over interpretations of words are better than warfare.

There are an endless number of ambiguities in the US-Taiwan relationship, but I will mention only three. The most obvious, of course, is the "one China" policy used by the US. This has gone through so many changes, with the US insisting that the changes didn't represent changes, that one would need a reminder card to be sure that one is describing the "one China" policy of the present. Its real purpose is not to describe a policy, however, but to allow China to publicize that America has again confirmed Beijing's "one China" principle, which it has not. This does help to avoid tensions, however.

Also, Taiwan has its "one China" policy, different than the other two, but gratefully, these days, it is seldom used. There are many in Taiwan who would like the US to also stop using the phrase, but as long as it serves a useful purpose, that is not likely.

The word referendum has recently gained much attention. It shouldn't be considered as ambiguous, but somewhere its meaning in the US-Taiwan relationship was enlarged to include a referendum on independence as the only meaning. The same is true in China. There, the word referendum is doubtless not fully understood given their political system, but it is considered bad. When used with regard to Taiwan, the idea frightens them (as it does some in Washington). So it happens that the use of referendums for important public-policy issues, used extensively in the US, was somehow buried when it comes to Taiwan.

Perhaps, when Taiwan wants to have a referendum for public-policy purposes, they could add PP (public policy) to the word, or something like that, to avoid frightening so many people. But eventually, the problem of a referendum, minus the PP, will have to be faced even in Taiwan. For the US this could be a serious problem. The US has, on countless occasions, stated that any change in Taiwan's political status must have the "assent" of the people of Taiwan.

That will be something like a vote, except votes are usually meant for candidates. That's what referendums are for. Whenever that time comes, the people may want to be sure the word hasn't changed or come to mean something else. But at some point in the future, there will have to be a -- yes -- referendum to decide if the people agree to a change.

Getting the name of the process right is only the first step, however. Whatever rules or laws are needed may have to be legitimately established, and that, up to now, as in everything else, gets rapped up in domestic politics, meaning long debates before a consensus on that issue can be attained.

Then the hardest part of all is precisely what words are to be used in the referendum. The people will inevitably, and rightly, want to know precisely what it is they will be agreeing or dis-agreeing with. Disagreements over this point are likely to be serious and require an even longer debate.

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