The US is ratcheting up its opposition to an obscure Taiwan referendum. That's especially odd since the vote -- whatever its outcome -- will have no practical effect on Taiwan's standing or on the cross-strait status quo.
The referendum, if it goes ahead as planned together with the presidential vote on March 22, will ask Taiwan voters if the island should seek to join the United Nations with the name "Taiwan." Last Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the referendum a "provocative policy", adding, "It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."
Certainly, the vote won't change Taiwan's status. With China on the UN Security Council and only 24 small countries recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, any Taiwanese bid for UN membership -- no matter which name it uses -- is doomed. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and adamantly opposes even the most trivial Taiwanese claims to separate statehood.
Instead, the referendum is best seen as a domestic political tool: the pro-independence party, which backs the referendum, is using it as a "get out the vote" measure and to whip up Taiwan pride. To have any shot at winning, the pro-independence party needs to focus voters on the emotional issue of national identity. Thus the emphasis on using "Taiwan" -- which implies a complete break with the mainland -- rather than the island's formal name, "The Republic of China."
By contrast, if the election is decided on economic issues -- like the recent vote in South Korea -- the more China- and business-friendly Kuomintang has a strong edge. Indeed, its candidate is far ahead in the latest polls amid widespread malaise over Taiwan's anemic economy.
Given the referendum's domestic purpose, it would hardly seem to warrant the attention of a US Secretary of State who's already got her hands full patching up failed states in Iraq and Afghanistan and working on Middle East peace. So why the sharp remarks?
More than anything, they reflect China's nervousness about the coming months. Beijing fears Taipei will make a dangerous leap toward formal independence, taking advantage of China's focus on Olympic preparations. It's been leaning hard on Washington to rein in any such moves by its island ally. Rice's statements are likely the fruit of countless Chinese complaints -- and part of the give-and-take of big power politics between Washington and Beijing.
While Rice's comments may assuage Beijing, though, they're likely to backfire. The referendum looks almost certain to go ahead, despite Washington's knuckle-rapping. Meanwhile, Rice's labeling of the vote as "provocative" is an embrace of Beijing's view of the cross-strait conflict. By contrast, many in Taiwan argue that China's revanchism and rapid military buildup directly across the Strait -- now including more than 900 missiles aimed at the island -- is far more destabilizing than any symbolic, democratic vote.
As for saying the vote has "no benefits" for the Taiwan people, the fact of Rice's comments actually negates her point. Having the US Secretary of State highlight the referendum puts a rare global spotlight on the thirst of the majority of Taiwanese -- whatever their domestic differences -- for recognition as an independent, sovereign state. And in terms of Taiwan's domestic politics, her remarks only help the pro-independence party keep the campaign on its preferred battleground of national identity.
If the goal was to deter Taiwan's efforts to cement its independence, Beijing and Washington would have done better to ignore the vote altogether. Their high-profile opposition is merely likely to strengthen the hand of Taiwan's pro-independence hardliners.