Referendum stirs up Taiwan Strait
By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Despite Beijing's threats and Washington's disapproval, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is pressing ahead with plans to hold a multiple referendum the same day as presidential polls next March.
Taiwan voters will likely be asked to vote on as many as three topics: whether to build a nuclear plant, to cut the number of legislators by half, and to mobilize more resources to gain representation on the World Health Organization (WHO).
Political analysts in Taipei say while Chen is trailing behind the opposition candidate, Kuomintang (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan, in opinion surveys he has for the time being seized the initiative -- and put Beijing on the defensive.
And should Chen win re-election, he will likely push more radical steps to consolidate Taiwan's quasi-statehood before his second term is up in 2008.
Along with what his Beijing critics have called the "plebiscite card," Chen has over the past week fired a series of salvoes on the cross-Strait front.
The Chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has reiterated that Taiwan and China are "[sovereign] countries on either side of the Taiwan Strait."
Chen has also played up problems with the "one country, two systems" model to show that Taipei can't accept Chinese rule.
At a conference on Hong Kong last weekend, Chen asserted that the past six years had witnessed the "hollowing out" of the special region's economy as well as a "retrogression in democracy."
Last Friday, the Chen administration unveiled a watered-down plan for "direct flight" across the Strait: air traffic between both sides still have to go through "third-territory airspace" such as Hong Kong.
This led Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) to blast the Chen blueprint as "lacking in significance and deficient in sincerity."
Political sources in Taipei said the wily DPP chief had again demonstrated his ability to call Beijing's bluff through his blatant flashing of the plebiscite card.
'Right to invade'
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities have made it clear they regard a referendum on any subject as a trial run for a public vote on the self-ruled island's statehood.
Hawkish elements in the party and army have warned that Beijing has every right to invade Taiwan if it were to hold a plebiscite on its political future.
These hardliners have argued that since WHO membership involves questions of sovereignty, the forthcoming WHO-related referendum could be construed as a public vote on Taiwan's future status.
It is, however, most unlikely that Beijing will resort to belligerent means, such as war games off the Taiwan coast, to stop Chen's "creeping independence conspiracy."
Just before the last presidential election in 2000, former premier Zhu Rongji made a big mistake by threatening Taiwan voters that "a ballot for the DPP is a ballot for war."
Pollsters in Taipei agreed that the Zhu ultimatum had contributed to Chen's narrow victory.
Analysts said Chen hoped to achieve two objectives by focusing on cross-Straits issues in the run-up to the March polls.
Firstly, it is to Chen's advantage to shift the attention of Taiwan voters from economics to politics.
While the local economy has shown some signs of recovery -- the GDP is due to increase by 3.1 percent this year -- most Taiwanese feel much worse off than the 1990s.
Beijing-based Taiwan expert Sun Shengliang has slammed Chen for using the referendum gimmick to win votes through "fanning island-based nationalism and exacerbating cross-Straits antagonism."
Yet the DPP stalwart's strategy seems to be working as several recent polls have shown that he has narrowed the gap with Lien to just a few percentage points.
Independence before the Olympics?
More importantly, Chen hopes that the referendum and related maneuvers could by 2008 further solidify Taiwan's position as a de facto independent state.
As the president pointed out last week: "referendums are a universal value and a basic right of the people."
Chen hinted that the U.S., which had always tried to foster democratic development in Asia, lacks the moral high ground to criticize the DPP's gambit.
And as Foreign Minister Eugene Chien indicated last Sunday, Taiwan's achievement in democracy was key to its gaining recognition in the global community.
The DPP leadership realizes, however, that Taiwan would be subject to much more pressure as relations between China and the U.S. improve thanks to Washington's need for Chinese cooperation on the Iraqi and North Korean fronts.
Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the U.S. was "absolutely delighted with the state of our relations with the People's Republic of China."
It is significant that Beijing recently sent TAO Director Chen Yunlin to Washington to ask for American help in reining in Chen's "referendum offensive."
As Taiwan-based mainland affairs specialist Chang Wu-yueh pointed out, "closer Beijing-Washington consultation on Taiwan matters represents a new tactic in the CCP's cross-Strait game plan."
Former president Lee Teng-hui, deemed a mentor of President Chen's, has argued that Taiwan should pull out the stops to assert its sovereignty before 2008, when Beijing is due to host the Olympics.
Lee and his advisers have pointed out that even if Taiwan were to formally declare its independence, Beijing would not dare provoke international outcries -- and boycotts -- by invading the island.
The year 2008 also coincides with the end of a possible second term for Chen -- and there are indications that like Lee, Chen wants to go down in history as a 'Father of the Taiwan Republic.'