US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said recently he thinks President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) should clarify whether his latest statements about a referendum and a new constitution violate his "four noes" pledge. Opposition parties and several media outlets hurried to add fuel to the flames by blaming Chen for once again having stepped over the line in the sand with regard to the US' Taiwan policy.
As the US is unable to distinguish between the political parties here, it is only natural for them to try to put down the brakes on referendum talk, and try to cool things down in order to avoid further tensions in cross-strait relations.
So has Chen overstepped his boundaries? Judging from his inauguration speeches in 2000 and this year, as well as the "10 points" he made during a speech last month, he seems to be standing firmly on his promise not to declare independence, change the national flag or title, or hold a referendum on unification or independence. But he has also promised the people of Taiwan a suitable new constitution during his term -- and that it will be decided via a referendum. At a quick glance, these two promises seem to be contradictory, but a more thorough look reveals his advocacy of amending the Constitution as being on the safe side of the US' "bottom line."
First, the Constitution in its current form was created in China, in 1947. It is a Constitution aimed at ruling the vast territories and population of China, Tibet and Mongolia, and as such it is of course unsuitable to the territory and people currently under its jurisdiction. The Constitution has been amended six times, but this piecemeal approach has failed to meet current needs. A one-time comprehensive constitutional amendment is necessary and also meets the public's expectations.
Second, in his May 20 inauguration speech, Chen stated specifically that since there was no domestic consensus over what to do about the national flag, national title and the territories mapped out by the Constitution, these would not be subject to amendment. As the symbols of the nation are not to be included in the discussions over constitutional amendments -- and any amendment will be confined to restructuring the administrative and political system -- then clearly Chen has not gone beyond the parameters set by the US.
The articles for constitutional amendment recently passed by the legislature include the dissolution of the National Assembly so that future amendments will be subject to approval through referendums. This is a legally required procedure in the amendment process. People should not be shocked when they see the words "constitutional amendment" and "referendum" together. A referendum is only a formality, and what is important is whether the nature of the proposed amendments fall within a respectable degree of tolerance. Washington is unable to distinguish between the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) "constitutional amendment referendum" and the Taiwan Solidarity Union's (TSU) "referendum on correcting the name of Taiwan and rewriting the Constitution."
The DPP advocates a constitutional amendment that will retain the country's national emblems, while the TSU advocates the creation of a new constitution for the nation of Taiwan. Because of this divergence over amendments and the creation of a new constitution, Chen and former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) have aired their differences publicly. Washington should not confuse the proposals of the DPP and the TSU, even though they are both a part of the pan-green camp.