Taiwan’s sleeper crisis

Referendum meant to benefit ruling party

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn’t go into much detail in her year-end message but on one topic she was very clear: "We think that Taiwan’s referendum to apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tension in the Taiwan Strait and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."

But then the referendum is not meant to benefit the people of Taiwan so much as the Democratic Progressive Party which is not precisely the same thing. The DPP which draws its support mainly from those who would like the island of Taiwan to be an entirely separate country from China has held the presidency for the last eight years. However it won the 2004 election by a majority of only 0.22 per cent and things look even grimmer for next March’s election so it desperately needs a gimmick.

The referendum is the gimmick. The DPP has never dared to declare Taiwan’s independence from China because the Communist regime in Beijing vows to use "non-peaceful measures" to thwart any attempt to divide the motherland permanently. So the DPP always looks for substitute gestures that will signal to its supporters that it still means business. A referendum on changing the country’s official name from the Republic of China to "Taiwan" held at the same time as the election might just work. Well not change the official name exactly because the Chinese People’s Republic has already said that’s a red line that Taipei must not cross. The referendum just proposes that the government applies for UN membership as "Taiwan." The UN said no the last 12 times when the government in Taipei applied under the name of "Republic of China" but maybe it will say yes if they call the country "Taiwan" this time. They’re not very bright at the UN.

Changing the name is not going to change Taiwan’s reception at the UN and Chen Shui-Bian the outgoing DPP president knows it very well. Taiwan lost its UN seat to the People’s Republic of China in 1971 22 years after the Nationalists lost the civil war to the Communists and fled from the mainland. It lost its seat basically because the regime in Beijing ruled more than 98 per cent of the Chinese population.

It still does and few UN members are going to risk losing the trade of such a huge country just to make 22 million Taiwanese happy. True Taiwan is now a democratic country where even the old Nationalist Party though still devoted to the concept of One China ruled by non-Communists has accepted the democratic rules. However having a nicer political system doesn’t win you a lot of points in international politics.

The Taiwan government calculates that it can get away with this stunt because Beijing is hosting the Olympics next summer and wouldn’t dream of spoiling the party by confronting Taiwan over a referendum on the (fake) name change on March 22. The Taiwan government is probably wrong.

Its assumption is that the Beijing regime being a tyranny can turn public opinion on and off like a tap. If it wants the Chinese public to be outraged about Taiwan’s "splittism" the protestors will come out on the streets. If it doesn’t want a crisis they will obediently stay home. Chinese nationalism which has always been obsessed with preserving the unity of the motherland is reduced in this paradigm to a mere propaganda tool of the current regime.

Nonsense. The Communist regime knows that its ideology is dead. It knows that its claim to power depends on producing rapid economic growth and defending the national interest so it regularly plays the nationalist card especially over Taiwan. However popular hostility to Taiwan’s independence is real on the mainland and the regime in Beijing cannot just ignore it.

This is a marginal case for Taiwan will not be declaring independence in March or even formally changing its name. However this is an event that falls on the borderline of the tolerable for Beijing and its response even in the Olympic year will depend on whether it thinks it can manage the news of the referendum. If it thinks that it will be blamed by the public for failing to defend Chinese unity then stand by for the mother of all crises to erupt in the Taiwan Strait in early March.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.