LAST FRIDAY, Richard Lawless, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, told a congressional commission that Taiwan faces a significant military threat from China, and that Taiwan consequently needs to improve its defenses. Regarding the referendum that will be held on March 20 on whether Taiwan should acquire more advanced anti-missile systems, Mr. Lawless commented that Taiwan needed to achieve a consensus on defense spending and military reform. "There clearly is a requirement for this nation to find a common will and to bring itself together. . . . It is a free country, it is a democracy; it's a functioning democracy. And so however they manage to instill the national will to do what they have to do, that is the responsibility . . . of the Taiwanese people, and we don't want to impose ourselves on that process." This was welcome straight talk from a senior administration official.
However, this is not the only message the administration is sending about Taiwan's pending referenda. (There are two referenda scheduled for March 20; the second concerns an initiative to start a cross-Strait dialogue on reducing tensions between China and Taiwan.) While visiting Beijing two weeks ago, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was asked by his hosts to torpedo the referendum on Taiwan's defenses. Mr. Armitage both declined to criticize the Chinese missile build-up and went on to imply that Taiwan's referenda were dubious. Senior State Department official Randall Schriver made similar statements to a congressional commission last week. The net effect of Armitage and Schriver's statements has been to keep alive a "crisis"--Taiwan's referenda--that is not a real crisis, and the administration should not be treating them as a crisis just because Beijing wants it to do so.
When, in mid-January, President Chen announced the content of the referenda--a vote on missile defenses and a program for a cross-Strait dialogue--it was clear that Taiwan had heeded Washington's concern that the referenda neither undermine the status quo between China and Taiwan, nor promote Taiwan's independence. Having done that, Taipei had every reason to expect the Bush administration would not continue to challenge its efforts to exercise a basic democratic right.
THE ADMINISTRATION MAY BELIEVE that by entertaining and even giving in to Beijing's relentless demands, it will forestall a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Yet it is much more likely that the opposite is true. If anything, the administration is reinforcing Beijing's view that it has decisive leverage over U.S. policy toward Taiwan because of its "help" on North Korea. This sends a very bad signal, and one that will only encourage Beijing to keep pressuring Washington until it gets what it wants--and possibly take risky actions toward Taiwan on the assumption that Washington will be less likely to intervene.
Some top U.S. officials have suggested President Chen is playing politics with the referenda, which are expected to increase voter turnout among his supporters. By continuing to cast the referenda as provocative, however, these same officials have created an issue that has become part of Taiwan's presidential campaign to the detriment of Taiwan's current president. Is this their intention--to defeat an incumbent president on behalf of a candidate more pro-Beijing? What signal does that send to Beijing? Surely it's time for the Bush administration to tell Beijing to back off, and for the United States to allow Taiwan's democratic process to go ahead.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard. Ellen Bork is a deputy director at the Project for the New American Century.