The US has signaled a major intensification of its campaign against President Chen Shui-bian's (
In an exclusive interview on Monday with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called the proposed referendum a "mistake" and warned that it would be seen as violating Washington's policy against any attempt by Taiwan to alter the "status quo" with China.
"We oppose the notion of that kind of a referendum because we see that as a step toward a declaration of independence for Taiwan, towards the alteration of the status quo," Negroponte said.
"We believe it's important to avoid any kind of provocative steps on the part of Taiwan," Negroponte said.
The US State Department official's interview with Chinese media comes as Washington has come under increasing pressure on the issue from the Beijing administration, which considers the referendum to be what one leading US analyst described as a "referendum on independence in disguise."
The interview also comes three weeks before the opening of the UN General Assembly, at which several of Taiwan's allies are poised to introduce a resolution on Taiwan's membership in the world body.
China has also threatened to push for a UN resolution that would officially define Taiwan as part of China.
Such a resolution could harm efforts to break out of the international isolation Beijing has succeeded in imposing on Taiwan and could also force Washington to make a wrenching decision on whether to vote with China on the issue.
But it is not clear why the administration of US President George W. Bush decided to use a Chinese TV station as the medium through which to make its strongest and most extensive case against the referendum, though the US administration has generally rejected interviews with Taiwanese media.
In the Phoenix TV interview, Negroponte reiterated US friendship for Taiwan as well as Washington's strong support for Taiwan's democracy.
Asked whether it concerned him that Taiwan's democratic development was "sliding out of US hands," Negroponte said: "We feel that this is a time for the authorities in Taiwan to behave in a responsible manner, to behave in a way that would advance the interests of Taiwan while, at the same time, not disturbing the situation across the Taiwan Strait."
"I think there's a way of doing that, of pursuing their democracy, pursuing their vibrant economy, benefitting from the friendship, the strong friendship of a country such as the United States and we are certainly committed to continuing that," he said.
"But we believe that it has to be done in a serious and responsible way," he said.
In a reference to Chen's pledge during his first inauguration to adhere to his so-called "four noes," Negroponte indicated that the referendum would be seen as a violation of that pledge.
"I would recall that in the past President Chen has made commitments to the American president, to the international community and to the people of Taiwan not to take any kind of steps that would represent a unilateral alteration of the status quo, such as a change in the official name of Taiwan," Negroponte said.
The commitment not to change Taiwan's official name was one of the four noes and the Bush administration has viewed the UN referendum as a subtle method of promoting such a change.
While the administration has not made public comments about Taiwan's actual application to join the UN, observers in Washington say they expect the administration to actively oppose Taiwan's membership.
Most UN observers cite as the basis for that opposition Bush's need for Chinese cooperation in and outside of the UN on a number of foreign policy crises.
Japan's bid for a permanent seat in an expanded Security Council is also a factor, the observers say.
The US firmly supports Japan in its bid for a permanent seat if and when the UN decided to expand the number of Security Council members from the present five.
However, China, which holds a seat on the council, has not been supportive of Japan's bid.
BEHIND THE SCENES
In exchange for Beijing's support for Japan joining the security council, Washington may have agreed to oppose Taiwan's membership application, the observers said.
However, Negroponte also emphasized the friendship between Taiwan and the US in the interview.
"Taiwan has no better friend than the United States," he said. "We strongly support Taiwan's democracy. We support their economy. We're very impressed by their vibrant economy. And we're also, as you know, committed to the defense of Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act."
"So, when we talk about the situation in regard to [the referendum], we talk about Taiwan in the context of a great friendship," he said.
However, he would not speculate on the "hypothetical" possibility that the US would downgrade its military or economic cooperation with Taiwan if the referendum went ahead.
Such a situation is "very difficult to address before a specific situation might arise," he said.
"You're correct in saying we're very committed to the defense of Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act," he said.
"We wish the peoples and authorities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to pursue their objectives through peaceful means. And it's this kind of spirit that we're encouraging the authorities of Taiwan to adopt as they address this question of a referendum, which we consider to be a mistake," Negroponte said.
In response, Minister of Foreign Affairs James Huang (
"Holding a referendum is a domestic affair, a core value of democracy and the most democratic and peaceful way to express opinions," he said.
Huang is is accompanying Chen on his trip to Central America and spoke in Nicaragua, the last leg of Chen's nine-day trip.
"Seeking UN membership is a consensus goal agreed upon by the ruling and opposition parties. I don't understand why the US Department of State made such an incorrect interpretation of the referendum on Taiwan's UN membership," Huang said.
He said the referendum does not violate Chen's "four noes" pledge, but "gives the people of Taiwan an opportunity to directly express their reasonable and humble hope of joining the United Nations."
Nor does the referendum amount to changing the status quo of the Taiwan Strait, he said, adding that Negroponte's interpretation of Taiwan's referendum was "incorrect" and that the Chen administration would continue to communicate with the US government about the issue.
Meanwhile, at a press conference on Monday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he was in favor of Taiwan's referendum on UN membership, but remained evasive about whether he would support the application.
Ortega said since a referendum was a Taiwanese internal affair, he would respect the decision of Taiwanese on whether to join the UN under the name "Taiwan."
However, he said he would not make his position on the issue known until after the referendum was held.
In Taipei, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Chi (
"Through giving an interview with Phoenix TV, it's clear that the US wanted to make a direct appeal to the public against the DPP's UN referendum bid," Su said.
He said Negroponte had given a "serious" warning to Taiwan, adding that he worried that "a more serious reaction" might be the US' next step.
Su also warned that China could take action against Taiwan if the US failed to put a stop to the DPP's UN bid.
LOSS OF CONFIDENCE
People First Party Legislator Daniel Hwang (黃義交) urged the president to drop his UN referendum bid "because Negroponte's interview showed that even the US, a long-term friend of Taiwan, had lost its confidence in him."
The US must have felt deeply "frustrated" by Chen, who always put political concerns ahead of the country, so much so that Negroponte had to give the interview, Hwang said.
Saying that she was not surprised to learn of the US' response because the US has its own national interests, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Yeh Yi-chin (
Although Taiwan's application for UN membership may be denied because of China's interference,Taiwan still needs a referendum to express the will of its people, she said.
"If we do not do it, the world will never know what the 23 million people in Taiwan want," she said. "The US should not deny Taiwanese this basic right."
Additional reporting by Flora Wang and Shih Hsiu-chuan
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