US president George W. Bush made a statement last month opposing "any unilateral change to the status quo" when he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶). The general interpretation of it was that it was a warning in light of President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) decision to hold a defensive referendum on March 20.
For a while, Bush's statement, together with the explicit misgivings of the Japanese government, seemed to have turned the world against Taiwan. As a good friend of the US, Japan and many other democracies, Taiwan is quite serious about these concerns and will take them into consideration. But is Taiwan painting itself into a corner as one report described? Not necessarily.
The recently passed Referendum Law gives the president the exclusive power to conduct a defensive referendum in the face of an external threat. That power is also viewed as a presidential responsibility to safeguard national security.
The purpose of having the defensive referendum in March is to raise international and domestic awareness of the growing danger of China's missile deployment and its determination to use force. The referendum is legitimate, appropriate and not at all
A large and steadily growing number of ballistic missiles is the most visible threat against Taiwan. In addition, cruise missiles and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles are both at the stage of deployment and there is no defense available against them.
The Chinese air force also has a large number of newly acquired Su-27 and Su-30 fighters. The J-10, one of the newest fighters to be developed, has been rolling off the assembly line. Sovremenny-class destroyers, together with Kilo-class and Song-class
submarines, have also been
Further, Chinese assault strategies have been modified to include surprise attacks, pre-emptive strikes, asymmetric war and even all-out war.
Taiwan's call for help through a defensive referendum is certainly warranted under such circumstances, but there will be no need for it if China promises peace. The international community, if it is concerned with peace and stability in the region, should urge China to cease with its threats and begin a process of building a long-lasting peace.
But what is this "status quo" that the Chinese government has tried to bully other countries into believing?
The first democratic presidential election in 1996 has been recognized as a milestone in Taiwan's democratization. But more significant than this was that this election was a symbol of sovereignty -- held within specified boundaries by specified citizens for a government exercising exclusive control over a territory. Every four years, Taiwan reaffirms the new status quo -- that it is independent.
Taiwan treasures this reality and it is the reason why there is no longer any need to declare independence. Taiwan's adherence to the status quo, in turn, has become an important foundation for stability in the region.
This status quo was the real reason behind China's missile tests in Taiwan's waters in 1996. It was why the Chinese government released the white paper on the "one China" principle and the Taiwan problem in 2000, which claimed that Taiwan's second presidential election was nothing but a local Chinese election. It is also why Chinese leaders now travel the world telling other countries to oppose "Taiwanese independence." But this is a reality that China cannot change.
Since an independent Taiwan is the status quo, any opposition to it or attempt to force a change in it -- such as "one country, two systems" -- constitutes a change in the status quo. The more China opposes "Taiwanese independence" in the international arena, the more awkward its assertion becomes. China's determination to incorporate Taiwan is how a unilateral change in the status quo is now defined.
This does not mean that differences between Taiwan and China are irreconcilable. There are matters on which the two can work together to reach a compromise. But whatever compromises there may be, peace should be the essential principle in achieving that end.
As the president said when reiterating his commitment to the "five noes" policy in his New Year address, it is time for China to make a hard decision on peace.
The president's New Year wish is that the two sides of the strait can jointly win an international peace prize.
It is a sincere wish of the people of Taiwan as well. It may not be difficult to realize if China demonstrates a commitment to peace.
Joseph Wu is deputy secretary-general of the Presidential Office.
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