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Taiwanese democracy helps US
Lo Chih-cheng
3/23/2004

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A few days ago, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a lecture on Asian democracy and US foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, an important US think tank. Although Powell's lecture was mainly a general discussion of the US view of and assistance for the development of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region, the part dealing with the cross-strait relationship was significant in that it revealed some important information.

When recounting the direction of US efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, Powell stressed that the US will help Asian nations build representative democratic governments, and that the US role in regional security can be thought of as an important shield behind which democracy can develop. Based on this understanding, Powell proposed a few focal points for future efforts, also mentioning the cross-strait relationship.

He stressed that even though the US wants to see a rising China, it should also be a responsible China. At the same time, the US does all it can to keep peace and ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait and adheres to its one-China policy as defined by the three US-Sino communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Powell said that, "We do not support Taiwan's independence, and we oppose moves by either side to unilaterally change the status quo."

He also stressed that, "In this regard, we also strongly oppose the use of force or its threat across the Taiwan Strait. China's military build-up opposite Taiwan is destabilizing. We urge a posture more conducive to the peaceful resolution of existing disputes."

We are very clear on the fact that China has internationally labelled Taiwan's referendum and other measures to deepen democracy as attempts at changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, while pretending to be an innocent, peace-loving nation and concealing the fact that its missile deployment is the actual unilateral threat to the peaceful status quo. It was also Beijing's diplomatic and propaganda attacks that forced US President George W. Bush to say, in front of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, that he was concerned that the words and actions of Taiwan's leader might be an attempt at unilaterally changing the status quo, a statement that led to heavy international pressure on Taiwan.

However, following strong efforts by Taiwan's government to communicate with the US and the announcement of the actual referendum questions, Washington has taken a more neutral approach towards the referendum, publicly neither opposing nor supporting it.

Simply put, the US does not believe that Taiwan's referendum is an attempt to change the peaceful status quo. On the contrary, Powell in his lecture specifically referred to China's military deployments and said he believed them to be destabilizing. From this perspective, the US is gradually returning to a more balanced view instead of placing all pressure and responsibility on Taiwan.

More important, one of the main goals when initiating the peace referendum was the hope to use it to alert the international community and particularly the US to the fact that China's missile threat against Taiwan should be taken seriously. Powell's criticism of China's armed threat proves that the efforts to initiate the peace referendum are beginning to have an effect internationally and that the first positive reactions are appearing.

Another part of the lecture worth noticing was that Powell said that Taiwan is one of Asia's model democracies. Although this is not a new formulation from Washington, and although Powell himself has said that Taiwan is not a troublemaker but an example of success, the timing of the statement is very significant.

First of all, the Taiwan-US relationship has indeed been at a low point in the recent past, and Taiwan has also had to withstand a lot of US criticism and pressure. Powell's public praise for Taiwan's democratic achievements at this point in time shows that the US-Taiwan relationship is gradually warming up again.

Second, whether by chance or deliberately, the timing of Powell's lecture coincided with major political activities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In Taiwan, it was of course the intense presidential election campaign and referendum debate, and in China, it was the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Compared to Taiwan, where the people can elect their president and vote in referendums, both the NPC and the CPPCC are but the Chinese dictatorship's rubber stamp. This is exactly the reason why Powell, by publicly praising Taiwan's democratic achievements and pointing out that the goal of last year's 500,000-strong demonstration in Hong Kong was to win basic human rights, also highlighted the lack of democracy in China and the Chinese government's destruction of freedom.

In fact, the 2003 Human Rights Reports published by the US Department of State earlier this month denounced China, saying that its human rights record has deteriorated on every point. The Chinese government has been severely criticized by the US for things such as persecuting the Falun Gong religious organization, not allowing its people the freedom of association, suppressing religious freedom and human rights in Tibet, and for causing democratic government to regress in Hong Kong.

During Powell's testimony in Congress, he further said that the US is considering the introduction of a resolution in the UN condemning China for its suppression of human rights. In contrast, the human rights reports affirmed Taiwan's political human rights, pointing out that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has made good progress in its efforts to eliminate corruption and vote-buying and mentioned that President Chen Shui-bian has signed into effect a Referendum Law.

To sum up, with Taiwan in the final countdown toward a presidential election, Powell's lecture expresses a positive and balanced position. Democracy is indeed an important basis for Taiwan as it continues its quest for international support and recognition. This is also why the presidential election and the referendum are not only a necessary foundation for deepening democracy domestically, but also a necessary tool enabling Taiwan to promote its international diplomacy, a tool that the Taiwanese people should value and put to good use.

*Lo Chih-cheng is executive director of the Institute for National Policy Research.

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