Declaration of Referendum Re-ignites Tensions with China,
The president of Taiwan, a small island off the coast of China, recently called on the Chinese government to formally agree not to use force against the island republic, re-igniting tensions in the region.
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian announced late last week that he planned a referendum in March -- an island-wide vote demanding that China remove ballistic missiles aimed at the island and renounce the use of force against Taiwan.
Technically part of China, Taiwan lies 100 miles off the coast and has very different political and economic systems than the Communist mainland.
Although constitutionally barred from declaring legal independence from China, Taiwan's democratically elected legislature passed a bill last month that allowed the president to call a referendum if the country is "facing an external threat which may jeopardize national sovereignty."
Chen, who is seeking reelection in March, has said that the missiles constitute such a threat. He also added that the referendum would not involve the issue of independence but that it would reduce conflict in the region.
"Some argue that holding such a defensive referendum might send our children to the front line," he said. "In fact, the opposite is true."
President Bush, meeting in Washington with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, responded that he does not support the referendum or any moves that would further Taiwan's attempts at independence.
"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Mr. Bush said, "and the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose."
Chen's action has re-ignited the ongoing diplomatic and military debate between China and Taiwan. On Dec. 3, China said it would pay any price to keep the "one China" policy in effect. That policy states that China and Taiwan are one nation and should be treated as such.
"Taiwan independence means war," Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian told the New China News Agency. "This is the word of 1.3 billion people, and we will keep our word."
The Taiwan issue has long complicated the relationship between the United States and China. In recent weeks Chinese leaders have said that U.S.-China relations are threatened by America's "ambiguous" policy toward Taiwan. China views Taiwan as a breakaway republic -- not a separate state -- and has, at times, appeared ready to use its military to force the island to reunify with the mainland.
The U.S. believes that any reunification needs to be achieved diplomatically and without force.
During his meeting with President Bush, the Chinese premier softened his government's stance, saying that China would pursue a peaceful reunification with Taiwan "as long as a glimmer of hope" exists.
However he went on to say that the Chinese government "respects the desire of people in Taiwan for democracy, but we must point out that the (Taiwanese leaders) are only using democracy as an excuse and attempt to resort to defensive referendums to split Taiwan away from China. Such separatist activities are what the Chinese side can absolutely not accept."
The history of the Taiwan issue dates back to 1949, when Communist forces, led by Mao Tse-tung, took over mainland China and over 2 million Nationalists fled to the small island that would become Taiwan.
The Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, established a government using the 1947 Chinese constitution. In an effort to prevent the spread of Communism, the U.S. government recognized Taiwan as the one true China. This recognition eventually led to financial and military aid, as well as promises to defend Taiwan against the Communists. The two countries signed a mutual security pact in 1954.
Throughout the 1960s, more and more countries began to recognize the Communist mainland government, known as the People's Republic of China. In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly voted to give Taiwan's seat on the Security Council to the mainland government. By 1979, the United States also switched courses and recognized the People's Republic of China, in part as a way to draw power away from the Soviet Union.
At first, the United States severed official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, accepted Beijing's "one China" mandate and abandoned its defense pact with the island. However, within months, the U.S. Congress reinstated unofficial economic ties with Taiwan, including the sale of arms and military defense of the island in what is known as the U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act.
Although Washington and Taiwan do not currently have official ties, Chen received a warm reception during a recent trip to the United States, angering Chinese officials.
By Annie Schleicher, NewsHour Extra
© 2003 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions