WASHINGTON - The United States on Tuesday expressed strong opposition to the Taiwan authorities' proposed referendum on UN membership in the name of Taiwan, saying that the initiative, with apparent pursuit of name change, is "a step intended to change the status quo" across the Taiwan Strait.
"We feel it is our obligation to warn that the content of this particular referendum is ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful. Bad public policy initiatives are made no better for being wrapped in the flag of 'democracy,'" Thomas Christensen, deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of East Asia and Pacific affairs, said while addressing the concluding session of a three-day US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held in Annapolis, Maryland.
Stressing that his remarks represent the agreed views of the US government, Christensen said that the United States does not support any generic referendum on applying to the UN because such a move, which would be only useful in domestic political posturing in Taiwan, strikes the US as "odd and unproductive."
"For the United States' part, the matter of how to respond would be straightforward: We would reiterate that we do not support Taiwan's membership in international organizations that require statehood and therefore would not support such a referendum," he said.
The particular referendum supported by Taiwan leader Chen Shuibian, he said, concerned the United States considerably more because of the issue of name change.
"This draft referendum raises the question of what Taiwan should be called in the international community. Moreover, it does so in what could be interpreted by many to be legally-binding popular vote," Christensen said.
"It is the apparent pursuit of name change in the referendum, therefore, that makes the initiative appear to us to be a step intended to change the status quo," he said.
The senior State Department official rebuffed arguments that the referendum, even if passed, would not amount to a pursuit of name change, saying that such arguments strike the US as "purely legalistic."
"After all, if the specific nomenclature does not matter, why include it in the referendum in the first place," he asked.
At a fundamental level, he said, such legalistic arguments from supporters of the referendum makes it seem that they do not take seriously Taiwan's commitments to the United States and the international community not to pursue a change in Taiwan's official name, are willing to ignore the security interests of the United States, and are ready to put at some risk the security interests of the Taiwan people for short-term political gain.
"Our bottom line is that the potential downsides of such an initiative for Taiwan and US interests are potentially large, and, as with any UN referendum, the benefits for Taiwan's international status are non-existent, so we must oppose such an initiative strongly," he stressed.
Christensen also rejected assertions made by some Taiwan leaders in recent years that Taiwan independence is the status quo that should be defended.
"Let me be perfectly clear," he said, "We do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state, and we do not accept the argument that provocative assertions of Taiwan independence are in any way conducive to maintenance of the status quo or peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
"We rank such assertions along with the referendum on joining the UN under the name Taiwan as needless provocations that patently not in the best interests of the Taiwan people or of the United States," the US official said.
The full text of Christensen's speech is posted on the website at www.us-roc.org.