President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) recently expressed his support for holding a referendum to decide whether to apply for UN membership under the name Taiwan. The US State Department said it opposed this plan. This was not the first time the State Department had said it was against a referendum in Taiwan, but while in the past it said it did not support a referendum, this time around it clearly opposes it.
As the US is a democratic country, surely the State Department knows that this statement is a brazen meddling in the internal affairs of another country. I am sure the US knows this, and since it knows, why does it take this stance? Several media reports have said the reason the US does is because Chen is retreating from his "four noes and one without" pledge
Yet, if we look closely at the State Department's statement, Chen supposedly breaking his pledge is surely only an excuse. What the US really means is in the second part of the statement, when it says: "The United States opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally. This would include a referendum on whether to apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan. Such a referendum would have no practical impact on Taiwan's UN status, it would increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait."
Under US President George W. Bush, Washington has repeatedly stated it is against any change in the status quo. There are different interpretations of what this "status quo" is. Many commentators assume that the "status quo" the US talks about means some vague status of Taiwan not being independent but also not a part of China. Hence, the people satisfied with the "status quo" happily accept this definition.
But the "status quo" the US talks about is not Taiwan as neither independent nor a part of China, but Taiwan's status remaining undetermined. The US opposes any unilateral move that would change the "status quo" from undetermined to determined.
To examine the reasons behind the US interpretation, we can look into the opinions of previous US officials. At the time the US Senate ratified the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Republic of China (ROC) and the US, a supplementary decision was made whereby the treaty could not influence the legal status and sovereignty of Taiwan and Penghu.
On Dec. 12, 1954, US secretary of state John Foster Dulles told a press conference that "technical sovereignty over [Taiwan] and [Penghu] has never been settled. That is because the Japanese peace treaty merely involves a renunciation by Japan of its right and title to these islands. But the future title is not determined by the Japanese peace treaty, nor is it determined by the peace treaty which was concluded between the Republic of China and Japan."
Similarly, after the UN revoked the ROC's right of representation, and when the US was preparing to set up diplomatic relations with China, on Nov. 12, 1971, the State Department's legal advisor, John Stevenson, wrote a memorandum to assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs Marshall Green in which he stated: "Since the 1952 Japanese Peace Treaty, the United States has taken the position that [the] status of Taiwan is undetermined, subject to some future international resolution. That position has been stated publicly from time to time."
In the joint communique the US and China signed in Shanghai in 1972, the US acknowledged Beijing's position that "Taiwan is a part of China," but it did not say it supported this. Afterwards, Green denied that the communique represented a change in the position the US had held since 1950. He was of the opinion that the status of Taiwan was still undetermined.
When Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to US president Richard Nixon, met Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) on Oct, 21, 1971, he said that the US was"not encouraging any government to maintain the position that the status is undetermined ... But [I cannot confirm] what tactical position we will take if another government raises whether the status of Taiwan is undetermined. I can confirm our position to bring about peaceful solution within the framework of one China."
Kissinger's words had an important influence on the US' Taiwan policy. Washington had assured Beijing it would not say that "the status of Taiwan is still undetermined," but deep down, the US kept thinking that it was. And because the status of Taiwan was still undetermined, the US could build up relations with Taiwan on all levels through the Taiwan Relations Act. How would the US resolve these difficult issues? That's where the talk about the "status quo" came in.
When we look at how the whole situation has evolved, we see that the reason this issue has become so complicated was mostly that Nixon, because he wanted a quick end to the Vietnam War, completely trusted Kissinger's plans, to the point that he was defeated in the UN and in his talks with China.
The US should remember this lesson and not again try to feed Beijing's hunger for power by putting pressure on Taiwan. The more the US stresses that a referendum in Taiwan will increase cross-strait tensions, the more China is encouraged in its aggression toward Taiwan and its talk of military action against Taiwan.
If it is US strategy to view Taiwan's status as undetermined, it should make a public appeal to all the peace-loving people in the world, especially China's government and its people, to respect the Taiwanese people's will.
As long-term US allies, the people of Taiwan are waiting for Washington to change its view on the status of Taiwan, and for it to view Taiwan as a country that can participate in international affairs and have its share of international rights and obligations.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor at Tamkang University.
Translated by Anna Stiggelbout
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