As China's prime minister prepares to visit the United States, the issue of Taiwan is once again front and center in relations between Beijing and Washington. VOA's Stephanie Ho spoke with Taiwan's main representative in the United States, and discussed with him an upcoming referendum that is the latest source of Beijing's anger.
Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian angered Beijing by pledging to call for a public referendum in March. The exact wording has yet to be determined, but that has not prevented the Chinese government from denouncing it, saying it will be another step toward independence for the island it considers part of Chinese territory.
In an interview, the top official of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States, Chien Jen Chen, said the interpretation that the referendum will focus on Taiwan independence is not correct. "As far as I know, there will be no referendum, there will be no referendum on the issue of independence or reunification," he stressed.
Taiwanese officials say China has nearly 500 missiles pointed at the island. According to Mr. Chen, the referendum will address this perceived military threat.
"I cannot now provide any specifics at this moment. But I know that it's likely to be a subject on the military threat from mainland China toward Taiwan [and] how our people feel about this threat from the PRC." PRC is the abbreviation for China's official title the People's Republic of China.
Mr. Chen pointed to the development of democracy on Taiwan as the main reason for the current variety of public opinion as to whether or not Taiwan should reunify with China. In the end, though, he added that most Taiwanese would rather not see drastic changes.
"That does not mean that one voice is the voice of the entire populace," he said. "Yes, there have been people talking about independence. But there have been people talking about unification. But more people have been talking about status-quo, that is, they would like to see peace and stability and continued prosperity be maintained."
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong says his government considers Taiwan the most important and sensitive issue facing China and the United States. Mr. Zhou called on the United States to stop selling advanced weapons to Taiwan and to stop in his words "upgrading" the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
Under U.S. law, the United States must provide what are described as "defensive" weapons to Taiwan and is the island's main arms supplier. Beijing denounces U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and has urged the U.S. government to work toward the common interests of China and the United States.
In Washington Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated Washington's opposition to any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Straits.
"We also urge both sides to refrain from actions or statements that increase tensions or make dialogue more difficult to achieve," he said. "Therefore, we would be opposed to any referenda that would change Taiwan's status or move towards independence."
The tensions in the straits date back a little more than fifty years. The Nationalist government lost the Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949. Ever since, although Taiwan has had a government separate from the Communist government on mainland China, Beijing has considered the island a breakaway province, and has periodically threatened to reunify it by force if necessary.
Now, University of California at Los Angeles professor Richard Baum says China sees the latest call for a Taiwan referendum as very provocative or, in his words, pushing the envelope of independence.
"And the Chinese have reacted," he pointed out. "They've reacted, of course, before, previously, to marginal envelope-pushing behavior by various Taiwanese presidents, but this time seems to be more serious provocation. The notion of a constitutional referendum that could include provisions for an autonomous and independent Taiwan is driving China up the wall. It's a serious provocation from their point of view, and they've used more serious language in responding to it than has been seen in years, including the threat of war."
According to the UCLA professor, Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian must be careful not only with how the referendum is worded, but also how he interprets and acts on it. "The actual language of the legislation is one thing," he said. "Chen Shui-bian's interpretation of the language is something else. And there is some gap between the real, actual, physical language, and President Chen's assertion about what it entitles him to do."
Professor Baum says Taiwan is trying to persuade the United States that its actions are not provocative, but defensive. This, he adds, will be a tough sell.
Meanwhile, Taiwan's representative, Mr. Chen, is confident the Chinese prime minister's visit to the United States will not affect U.S.-Taiwanese relations. He added that his government's relations with Washington remain very good, and that shared values in ideals like democracy have ensured continued support from the American people.