- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

U.S. opposition to two planned referendums has fed fears of a “perceived tilt” by the Bush administration toward mainland China, the chairman of Taiwan’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee said in an interview yesterday.

Parris H. Chang, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and a member of Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said the concerns are widespread among government officials and lawmakers, despite repeated assurances from Washington that there has been no change in policy toward the Republic of China.

“Our government does not want to offend our greatest ally,” he said, “but the concern is rising that there is a perceived tilt toward China. For the United States to oppose a democratic voter referendum because it may displease China, that seems to negate our own statehood.”

The fears are remarkable given the early record of the Bush administration, which took a strongly pro-Taiwan stance in its long-standing dispute with China over the island’s ultimate political status.

The United States has approved a major new arms sale to Taipei and eased travel restrictions on Taiwanese senior leaders visiting the United States. In April 2001, Mr. Bush infuriated Beijing by asserting the United States was prepared to do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, going far beyond the more ambiguous formulations preferred by previous administrations.

But the need for Chinese cooperation in the post-September 11 war on terrorism and U.S. efforts to cultivate a new generation of Chinese leadership under Premier Hu Jintao has caused deep unease in Taiwan, said Mr. Chang, who heads a parliamentary delegation that is stressing these concerns to Bush administration officials this week.

“We certainly understand the United States is a great power with global interests and we are a small nation, but the subtle changes we see in the American line are causing great uneasiness,” he said.

Mr. Chen’s plans to hold two nationwide polls in March — one on nuclear power and a second on applying for observer status in the World Health Organization — sparked a rare public rift with Washington.

Taiwanese newspapers reported over the weekend that Douglas Paal, director of the American Institute of Taiwan and the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taipei, had personally pressed Mr. Chen, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), not to hold the votes.

Although the issues involved are nonpolitical, Beijing has strenuously objected to the referendums, fearing they will prove a dry run for an eventual national vote on independence, which the DPP once advocated.

State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker would not confirm the Paal-Chen meeting, but signaled that the United States, while supporting democracy in Taiwan, did not support the referendum idea.

Both Taiwan and China should “refrain from actions or statements that increase tension across the [Taiwan] Strait or make dialogue more difficult to achieve,” Mr. Reeker said. “That certainly has been our position for some time.”

Mr. Chen has vowed to press ahead with the nationwide votes, despite U.S. unhappiness.

“Direct democratic rights, including referendums, are part of our fundamental human rights,” he told voters in the southern city of Kaohsiung over the weekend. “I believe those rights could never be opposed or stripped by any individual, government or country.”

Mr. Hu reportedly expressed his concerns about the referendums directly to Mr. Bush when they met on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, earlier this month.

Many of the Bush administration’s own conservative supporters are echoing Mr. Chang’s fears that the United States has moved away from the strongly pro-Taiwan stand of Mr. Bush’s early days in office.

Gary Schmitt, executive director of the neoconservative Project for the American Century, slammed Mr. Paal’s opposition to the referendums, saying it would only encourage hard-liners in Beijing.

“U.S. policy on Taiwan has drifted dangerously close to the mainland’s by viewing Taiwan’s democracy and efforts at self-determination as irresponsible and provocative — rather than normal and admirable for a country of 23 million that has moved from dictatorship to democracy,” he said in an analysis released yesterday.

Taiwan News, an English-language newspaper in Taipei, called this week for the U.S. government to “recall Paal for improperly intervening in Taiwan’s domestic political affairs.”

People’s Daily, which reflects Beijing’s official thinking, said in a recent analysis that U.S. policy on Taiwan under Mr. Bush had followed a “roundabout course” but “has by and large moved back to the policy of the previous six governments.”

In a relationship in which subtle shifts of phrasing can create enormous controversy, Mr. Chang said there have also been other U.S. statements on the Taiwan-China dispute that sparked concern in Taipei.

He also noted that more than two years after Mr. Bush announced the United States would sell Taiwan as many as eight diesel submarines, no shipyard has been found that is able and willing to build the vessels.

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