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Ex-AIT chair urges activist to reconsider independence agenda

2019/02/12 19:04:56

Richard Bush / CNA file photo

Washington, Feb. 11 (CNA) A former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) chairman has publicly challenged an activist's aggressive push for a referendum on Taiwan independence, asking if he has consulted with Washington on an action that could lead to the need for American intervention.

Kuo Pei-hung (郭倍宏), the chairman of Formosa TV and chief convener of the pro-independence Formosa Alliance, called on local lawmakers on Jan. 31 to make clear their stance on revising Taiwan's Referendum Act to allow votes on issues concerning Taiwan's future.

In his statement, Kuo said "Taiwan should create an independent state this year and advance toward becoming a normal country."

The statement was endorsed by several independence activists, including former Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), former presidential advisor Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), and Kao Chun-ming (高俊明), a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan.

The Referendum Act currently does not allow votes on matters that require changes to the country's Constitution, and sovereignty issues fall within that category, which is why Kuo and his backers want to amend to the law.

In an open letter to Kuo on the Brookings Institution's website, Richard Bush reminded him of "China's clear opposition to an independent Taiwan and the position of the United States that it does not support Taiwan independence."

Kuo's proposal "touches on the national interests of the United States, specifically its abiding interest in peace and security in the Taiwan area and its longstanding view that neither side of the Taiwan Strait should try unilaterally to change the status quo," Bush wrote.

Bush, a senior fellow at the Washington-based institute and director of its Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, warned that the proposal could be banking on support that may not exist.

"If China were to use 'non-peaceful means' in response to what it concluded was secession by Taiwan, that in turn would raise the at least implied commitment of the United States to come to Taiwan's defense," Bush says. "Yet that commitment has never been absolute."

If the U.S. Armed Forces were to risk their lives for the safety of Taiwan, American leaders would want to be certain that such a sacrifice was clearly necessary in light of U.S. interests, Bush said.

In such a case, U.S. leaders would insist, if actions by Taiwan created the risk of war and might trigger American intervention, that they be consulted in advance by the Taiwan authors of those actions.

"I wonder, therefore, whether you have thus consulted with anyone in authority in the U.S. government about the risks that your proposal might create.

"Or do you assume that the Trump administration's support for Taiwan is so strong that it will support initiatives from Taiwan that might create the risks of conflict?" Bush asked.

He wrote that he knows President Donald Trump himself is skeptical about any U.S. security commitment to Taiwan.

"At a meeting of the National Security Council on January 19, 2018, Mr. Trump asked his senior national security team, 'even more than [Korea], what do we get from protecting Taiwan?'

"The implication of that question is the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is not justified, as far as he is concerned. I have seen no evidence that this skepticism has changed," Bush wrote.

"It is consistent with his long-standing opposition to U.S. defense commitments to U.S. friends and allies."

In promoting his referendum proposal in the past, Kuo has said countries would recognize Taiwan should the country vote to declare independence, without ever suggesting which countries those might be.

Bush, who worked with the late Representative Steven Solarz from 1983 to 1992 to promote democracy and human rights in Taiwan, contends that "one of the reasons that the United States has expressed support for President Tsai (Ing-wen 蔡英文) and her administration is precisely because she is cautious and careful."

"She does not take the U.S. commitment for granted and understands the value of close communication," Bush says, unlike President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) when he undertook initiatives regarding Taiwan's legal and political character while in office from 2000-2008.

Bush said the pro-independence Chen proposed using the "mechanism of referendum" to let the people decide issues concerning Taiwan's sovereignty, and did it without consulting with "the George W. Bush administration in advance because he knew in advance the answer he would get."

Chen's campaign "did great damage to U.S.-Taiwan relations," and President Bush criticized Chen in December 2003 for trying to unilaterally change the status quo, Bush wrote.

He also questioned whether, as Kuo has argued, that referendums are the best democratic mechanism.

"Whether it is indirect democracy in a legislature or direct democracy through a referendum, distortion and manipulation of the popular will occurs. So a referendum is not necessarily better than other mechanisms," Bush said, citing the example of Brexit.

(By Rita Cheng and Elizabeth Hsu)
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