Referendum deserves world support
With hundreds of missiles ranged along mainland China's southern coast casting an ominous shadow over the lives of his 23 million fellow Taiwanese, President Chen Shui-bian, as their duly elected leader, is duty-bound to demand that Beijing dismantle them and renounce the use of military force against the Republic of China. And as the citizens of a democratic nation, it is important for the Taiwanese people to make their voices heard loud and clear across the Taiwan Strait--and around the world--emphasizing that Beijing must commit itself to settling differences with Taipei peacefully, through mutually respectful dialogue rather than brute force.
Such is the purpose of the referendum to be held March 20 in tandem with the ROC presidential election.
Beijing leaders, however, have launched a global PR blitz to warn off anyone from supporting the referendum. They claim that it is part of a conspiracy by a minority of Taiwanese "splittists" to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by seeking independence for Taiwan, as well as an election-campaign gambit on the part of Chen to win votes for a second term by fanning anti-Chinese sentiment.
Beijing's pressure has succeeded in eliciting expressions of concern in Washington, Tokyo and Paris that the referendum is needlessly provocative and serves only to escalate cross-strait tensions. Such claims are entirely unfounded, however, and it would appear that Western leaders who have been persuaded to voice them are motivated more by the desire to placate China for the sake of their national interests rather than by any concern about standards of responsible conduct.
Peace, after all, is indeed the primary objective of the referendum, which is intended to avert rather than provoke war. In fact, it is Beijing that has been escalating tensions by beefing up its military deployments on the other side of the strait, by refusing to negotiate with Taipei about cross-strait relations unless the latter first acknowledges that it is a local government under Beijing's sovereignty, and by doing all in its power to isolate Taiwan in the international community.
Peace is not the only objective of the referendum, however. It is also a demonstration by the 23 million Taiwanese of their right to exist and determine their own future free from fear and to consolidate democracy by finally, for the first time in the history of the Republic of China, exercising the right of referendum enshrined in the ROC Constitution promulgated in 1947--two years before the People's Republic of China came into being. This civil right is also fundamental to the "Three Principles of the People," formulated by ROC founding father Sun Yat-sen, who worked tirelessly to realize the ideal of power to the people.
As for worries that the Chen administration is seeking to change the cross-strait status quo, the March referendum will not violate the "Five No's" policy spelled out in Chen's May 2000 inauguration speech: "As long as the Chinese Communist Party regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title [the Republic of China], I will not push for the inclusion of the so-called 'state-to-state' description in the Constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regard to the question of independence or unification. Furthermore, there is no question of abolishing the Guidelines for National Unification and the National Unification Council." What Chen did not say in the same breath, but has subsequently reiterated over and over again is that there is no need for Taiwan to declare independence since Taiwan is the Republic of China, which has in fact long been a sovereign, independent nation and has never belonged to the People's Republic of China. He has also stressed that he is open to discussing the topic of unification, though not willing to concede that Taiwan is presently a province of the PRC. It is Beijing's unrelenting demand for such a concession as the precondition for talks that is the source of the tension in the Taiwan Strait.
More than anything else, the 23 million Taiwanese want to live in peace, free from military threats. Beijing leaders have stated that they respect Taiwan's democratization process and wish to promote the welfare of the people of Taiwan. If so, they should back up their words with deeds, and should welcome the Taiwanese people's expression of their views through direct democracy.
The Chen administration has launched a diplomatic offensive to explain to the international community that holding of the referendum is meant to prepare the ground for resolving cross-strait differences through dialogue, lay the foundation for lasting peace in the region, and promote the cause of democracy and human dignity. None of these goals are achievable so long as the world looks on mutely as Beijing refuses to negotiate directly with Taipei as an equal but only escalates its military threat. Therefore, the international community should fully support Taiwan's pursuit of long-lasting peace through such means as the March referendum.
--Ernesto Hilario is a free-lance writer based in Metro Manila, the Philippines.
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