Taiwan’s Explosive Referendum

Gung-ho hawks in the People’s Liberation Army are not famous for their facility with political subtleties. They are even less equipped to handle metaphysical questions such as “to bomb or not to bomb."

On the issue of what Beijing – and the PLA – should do about Taipei’s seemingly no-holds-barred progression toward de jure independence, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is faced with the horrendous choice of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Since the spring, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been laying the groundwork for a referendum to garner public support for Taiwan’s application to join the United Nations. While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has reiterated that the UN General Assembly will not even put the “application” on its agenda, Beijing sees this as a blatant attempt by the DPP at outright separatism.

First, despite the apparent futility of the gambit, Taipei has for the first time designated the island as “Taiwan” – and not “Republic of China,” the constitutionally correct name – for the purpose of joining an organization of sovereign nations. China’s Anti-Secession Law of 2005 spells out that any effort by Taipei to alter its constitutional status and other sovereignty-related circumstances would be construed as a declaration of de jure independence – and that Beijing has the right to use “non-peaceful means” to thwart the conspiracy.

Partly as a result of Beijing’s pressure, several U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, have since last month warned Taipei that it is a “mistake” to use the referendum vehicle to try to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

The CCP leadership is even more alarmed by the apparent popularity of the DPP’s referendum game plan, which also serves the purpose of generating support for its candidate, Frank Hsieh, during presidential polls set for March next year. A “let’s join the UN” rally held in the southern city of Kaohsiung over the weekend attracted half a million people.

And most disturbingly for Beijing, even the pro-status quo Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalists Party, which has maintained a cordial dialogue with the CCP, has been forced to join in the game. The KMT candidate for president, Ma Ying-jeou is sponsoring a separate referendum on the same issue; the only difference is that the KMT would be seeking UN membership under the old Republic of China designation. A UN-related demonstration organized by the KMT in the central Taiwan city of Taichung last Sunday drew 50,000 participants.

Responding to the two rallies, Beijing’s cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office said mainland authorities were “preparing for a serious situation.” While no details were given, mouthpieces of the PLA have used more graphic language to blast the DPP’s “evil but doomed separatist plot.” More significantly, the Liberation Army Daily reported last Sunday that the Nanjing Military Region, which is “responsible” for the Taiwan region, had recently held large-scale war games along the coast. The daily said the centerpiece of the maneuvers was the firing of air-to-ground missiles by the PLA’s most sophisticated jet fighters – and that the missiles scored a “100 percent success rate” during the drills. The official PLA Pictorial also reported that battle groups from the famed North Sea Fleet had in the past two months twice sailed through the Taiwan Strait to practice maneuvers such as “breaking through submarine blockades” as well as “long-range sudden attacks.”

Other mainland media have hinted that the PLA would be deploying the latest weapons, including the newly developed Jian-11B “stealth” jet fighter – said to be better than the Su-27 purchased from Russia – in forthcoming rounds of psychological warfare against the “breakaway province.”

Beijing sources familiar with the CCP’s Taiwan policy said, however, that the Hu Jintao leadership is caught in a dilemma. Given Beijing’s long-standing insistence that national reunification is China’s “topmost core interest,” a low-key response would expose the party to accusations of cowardice. However, past experience, including missile drills close to Taipei that were held by the PLA close to the 2000 Taiwan elections, has shown that saber rattling will only help the DPP gain more votes through stirring up Taiwan residents’ indignation against “threats from the Communists.”

Warnings by U.S. officials have produced similar effects. President Chen and candidate Hsieh have appeared to gain support by showing they can, in the words of DPP supporters, “stand up to the Americans.”

The Beijing sources say it is still inconceivable for party leadership to seriously consider an invasion. Firstly, from the 17th CCP Congress next month until the plenary National People’s Congress in March 2008, the Hu administration will be preoccupied with licking into shape party and government leadership councils, including a new politburo and cabinet. Moreover, preparations for the Summer Olympics are getting into high gear.

Most significantly, despite China’s rising international clout, it would be hard put for the CCP leadership to justify full-fledged military action against Taiwan merely upon the pretext of Taipei holding a referendum on a course of action whose success rate is zero.

Indeed, for the foreseeable future, the Hu leadership will likely concentrate on preventing other “provocations” from Taipei from escalating into a full-scale cross-Strait crisis. Diplomatic analysts in both Taipei and Beijing have indicated that the DPP may, to drum up more support in the run-up to the March presidential polls, concoct a military crisis of one kind or another with the mainland.

For example, reconnaissance and other jetfighters and naval vessels from both sides routinely engage in “cat-and-mouse” games in the narrow confines of the Taiwan Strait. And it is not difficult for either side to engineer a collision or other dangerous encounters that could subsequently explode into a full-blown military confrontation.

President Hu, who is also Chairman of the Central Military Commission, has reportedly sent instructions to PLA officers in the Nanjing Military Region and other frontline units to exercise “caution and forbearance” against possible provocation and instigation from the separatists.