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It’s Taiwan’s referendum

by Hisahiko Okazaki

For China, the launch of the Fukuda Cabinet in late September was good news, so it must expect many things from the new administration. What concerns me now in this respect is Taiwan’s move to hold a national referendum on whether to seek U.N. membership in the name of “Taiwan.”

Taiwanese President Chen Shui—bian wants to hold this referendum during next year’s presidential election. China, which vehemently opposes the move, has tried to persuade various countries, including the United States, to stop it. The U.S. has publicly expressed its opposition to the referendum through a spokesman. And it is likely that Washington has already conveyed that position through its representative office in Taiwan. China has similarly approached the European Union, but the EU appears to have refused to express an opposing view through official channels.

As expected, China has also tried to influence Japanese policy. The position of the previous administration of Shinzo Abe was that Tokyo should not take any definitive action — for a good reason.

Four years ago, when Taiwan held a similar referendum at the time of the presidential election, Tokyo publicly conveyed its opposition to Taipei, evidently under pressure from Beijing (whether Japan came under pressure from the U.S. as well is unclear). That action badly hurt popular sentiments toward the Japanese. The reaction there was: Why is Japan meddling in the affairs of Taiwan while making no contributions to the island’s security?

On the other hand, America was let off the hook for trying to influence Taiwanese policy because it was responsible for the defense of the island. As a result of the Japanese action, the envoy who represented Japan in Taiwan at the time became virtually unable, I am told, to conduct diplomatic activities there until he retired from the post.

Ostensibly, America’s reason for opposing the referendum is that it would intensify tensions across the Taiwan Strait. In fact, at a U.S.—China summit on the sidelines of the last Asia—Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly told U.S. President George W. Bush that China was opposed to the referendum itself, and even hinted that China might invoke the national anti-secession law, which means military action. That would certainly intensify cross—strait tensions. The veiled threat, though, is largely rhetorical. Calm judgment suggests that the real problem lies elsewhere.

The question at stake is rather simple. If a referendum is actually held next spring, will China use military force? The answer, if put to all schools of China experts including pro-China ones, invariably would be “no.”

With China hosting the next Olympics, it is simply inconceivable for that country to resort to force if Taiwan, instead of making a formal declaration of independence, just changed its name from the Republic of China to Taiwan in its annual membership application to the United Nations. If so, then what compelled Hu to drop the dark hint, and what is his real motive?

To Chen and his supporters, the purpose of the referendum is clear: Having voters reaffirm their Taiwanese identity and thereby bring electoral gains to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In opinion polls asking “Do you consider yourself Taiwanese or Chinese?,” an overwhelming majority say Taiwanese. So it is a foregone conclusion that most people will prefer the name of “Taiwan,” not China, in its application for U.N. membership.

In democratic elections everywhere, political parties devise their own methods for campaigns. As long as the campaigns are lawfully carried out, outsiders should stay on the sidelines.

What China wants to see may well be the opposite of what the DPP wants to achieve. Beijing wants the Nationalist Party (KMT) to win in the next presidential election, so it is trying indirectly to promote the KMT, because U.S. opposition to the referendum hurts the Democratic Progressives while helping the Nationalists.

What happened four years ago comes to mind. Following public protests of the referendum from both the U.S. and Japan, Peng Ming-min, senior adviser to the Taiwanese president, told me during a visit here, “If Chen Shui—bian loses in the presidential election, it will be because of interference from America and Japan.” It turned out that the DPP won a razor-thin majority.

In effect, the U.S. was, and is, interfering in Taiwan’s elections between the KMT and the DPP in ways that favor the former. This seems to be the inevitable conclusion given that the possibility of tensions escalating through the use of force is virtually nil.

For the Fukuda administration, the right course to follow is to stick with the policy of the previous administration, no matter what China says or does.

The people of Taiwan are our neighbors who have a deep affinity and close feelings of good will toward Japan. At a time when they are trying to run their country as democratically as Japan, it is unconscionable for the Japanese to betray these feelings. Moreover, Japan has no legal or moral reasons for doing so. After all, interference in the internal affairs of other countries is strictly prohibited among modern states.

China may say that Taiwan represents its internal affair, but by asking foreign countries to interfere, China is tacitly admitting that Taiwan is more than just an internal affair.

Hisahiko Okazaki is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The original Japanese version of this article appeared in the Oct. 31 Seiron column of Sankei Shimbun.