In 2003, while still serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, I was asked by Taiwanese reporters what the US view would be on the proposal for Taiwan to hold a national referendum in conjunction with the 2004 election.
I gave a rather lengthy, rambling and convoluted answer that could have been summarized in a more concise form by saying, "it depends." The same remains true today.
Why does a referendum pose difficult questions for the US government? Why are US government officials unwilling to simply endorse any referendum on any subject of Taiwan's choosing?
The core challenge faced by US government officials when such matters are considered comes from the tension that emanates from asking two questions: How can the US be pro-Taiwan, but not anti-China? And how can the US be pro-democracy, but not pro-independence?
Clearly the US is a long-time supporter of Taiwan, sustains a great affinity for its people and stands to benefit from investing further in the bilateral relationship. But the US also needs good relations with China.
The US has a strong interest in seeing Taiwan's democracy succeed and strengthen. Such an outcome not only supports a regional and global strategy to broaden the international community of democracies, it also best positions Taiwan to be a like-minded partner to the US on a range of important issues such as counter-terrorism, trade liberalization and maritime security. But the Bush administration, like the six preceding administrations, will not support Taiwanese independence.
It is important for government leaders in Taipei and people in Taiwan to understand that these are the questions that will inform policy discussions in Washington.
It is the dynamic analysis surrounding these questions that leads Washington to conclude that the subject matter of a referendum in Taiwan is consequential, and the timing of public announcements related to a referendum matter as well.
Too often, frustrated people in Taiwan will interpret a US policy statement as being animated by a desire to curry favor with Beijing.
The truth of the matter is that US policy decisions are often more complex than would be the case if the sole objective was to please China.
It is more accurate to acknowledge the balancing act -- how to be pro-Taiwan, but not anti-China.
Returning to the question of a national referendum in Taiwan in this context, let's consider what US policy officials are likely discussing as Taiwan conducts its own debate regarding the wisdom of holding a referendum next year.
As I stated in a variety of public forums in 2003, one can imagine categorizing referendums in Taiwan in three ways from the US perspective.
Category one is a referendum on a topic that relates to good governance, increasing efficiency and resolving a contentious public debate that the legislature is unable to resolve (e.g. whether or not Taiwan should build a fourth nuclear power plant).
A second-order benefit of a referendum in category one is that the collective experience resulting from conducting the referendum in and of itself would help further strengthen Taiwan's democracy.
Category two is a referendum that most clearly addresses the question of independence and/or sovereignty (e.g. an actual referendum on whether or not Taiwan should declare its independence).