Press Roundtable AIT Chairman Raymond F. Burghardt, Taipei, December 11, 2007
OT0721E | Date: 2007-12-11
Burghardt: Thank you for coming here this morning to meet with us. I just had a very useful visit as all visits here are. I arrived about noon on Saturday. As you know, I've met with President Chen and also with the two presidential candidates, Hsieh Chang-ting [Frank Hsieh] and Ma Ying-jeou. Then I had a number of separate meetings with old friends here, political figures, business leaders, others whom I trust as people who will give me an honest view of what's going on here.
As always, I found it a very useful and very fascinating time to be here.
I did bring a number of views from people at the highest level in Washington which I shared with the people I met with here.
I have a statement which I'd like to make which sort of lists some of the themes of the visit, and then I'll make some of my own observations.
My visit here, as all the visits that I make here to Taiwan, is to emphasize the U.S. view that continued stability in the Taiwan Strait serves the interest of the United States, of the PRC, and of Taiwan.
The U.S. will maintain its One China policy based on the three U.S.-PRC communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our policy has helped to guarantee Taiwan's security, protect its democracy, and underpin its phenomenal economic growth. That policy has been durable for three decades under seven U.S. administrations, and we're not going to change it now.
We have the highest regard for Taiwan's democracy. We've made clear on a number of occasions that we're concerned that the proposed referendum on UN membership under the name "Taiwan" unnecessarily threatens stability in the Taiwan Strait and thus your security.
The U.S. is not opposed to referenda in principle; we are opposed, though, to any initiatives that appear designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally or that run counter to President Chen's previous commitments to the international community.
I'd like to take this opportunity to reaffirm our support for Taiwan's international space. As I and my colleagues in Washington and Taipei have stated many times, we support Taiwan's membership in international organizations that do not require statehood to join. We're concerned by activities designed to limit the ability of the people of Taiwan to engage meaningfully in international society.
Let me just stress a couple of the points I made yesterday. I think you probably saw or read the reports on some of the comments that I've made.
As I noticed, some of the newspapers picked up, I think, [that] all of our comments about the referendum, all of our comments about the election over the last few months, could be summarized as making sure that the new president has a real chance. Making sure that -- I mean we're going to have a change of leadership here! As I said yesterday, that's one of the wonderful things about democracy. It ensures there will be a peaceful change of leadership. So it would be a big mistake to not take advantage of that wonderful opportunity offered by democracy. The new President of Taiwan, no matter whether it's Hsieh Chang-ting [Frank Hsieh] or Ma Ying-jeou -- and we are prepared to work with either one; we have no preferences between the two. But regardless of who wins, he deserves to be his own man. He will have a chance to come up with new ideas of how to deal with cross-Strait relations. He shouldn't be boxed in by statements that people make now or actions that they take now. We give that same message to Beijing. We say to Beijing: wait; there's going to be a new President there. Don't over-react. Don't do stupid things.
So just to make sure my remarks yesterday were understood, when I was talking about words or actions that can harm the new president's ability to get off on the right foot, I was specifically referring to the referendum. Frankly, the referendum -- I mean this is my main problem with the referendum. I think the view is shared by many in Washington. The referendum isn't fair to the new president of Taiwan. The referendum will -- just the process of having the referendum -- will make it harder for a new president of Taiwan to develop better relations across the Taiwan Strait. If it passes, it will be even harder for the new president of Taiwan to get off on the right foot. That isn't fair to the new president.
I will say that some of the -- in other words, the referendum, as we've said a number of times, Tom Christensen has said, John Negroponte has said -- it isn't going to accomplish anything in changing Taiwan's international status. All it does is cause trouble.
I was reassured by President Chen's remarks yesterday in which he stressed that the referendum, well, he stressed that he will not go back on his commitments, the four no's that he made [for] the remainder of his term. He stressed repeatedly that the referendum does not represent a step toward de jure independence. He stressed that if it passes, it won't have significance beyond the words of the referendum itself. I think those are all important reassurances.
But there's a lot of time between now and [March] and between the days after [March] for people to make expansive and elaborate statements on what the referendum means. Those are the kind of statements, I think, that really hurt the new President, and I hope everybody will be careful about it.
Why don't I stop there and open it up for your questions. Please identify yourself also when you ask your question.
Kathrin Hille, Financial Times: I have a question regarding what you said [inaudible] your remarks just now. You said you were reassured by President Chen's remarks yesterday and pointed to the restatement of the four noes, and his remark that the referendum is not the step towards de jure independence. But I'm just wondering how valuable these words and these repeated statements can still be, as the U.S. has repeatedly said that it's concerned that the referendum itself is in violation, or might be in violation, of the four no's. So how [inaudible] are the four noes after all? I'm getting the sense that President Chen might be repeating these words from time to time, but there's something wrong with the spirit.
Burghardt: Diplomats always try to find something positive to say. But --
Peter Enav, AP: Good morning. As it happens, I followed you yesterday in talking to President Chen, and one of the questions I put to him was whether he is concerned that, after having succeeded, to my way of thinking, quite spectacularly over the past year-and-a-half in moving the issue of Taiwan independence foursquare onto the national political agenda, whether he is not worried that, regardless of who wins the presidential election, that element of his legacy will disappear, given their views.
His response to me was not convincing. That may be my own subjective reading of the way he was operating. Which leads me to ask you, just given this very detailed explication of why the referendum is unfair because it's going to box in whoever succeeds him, could you elaborate on the mechanism by which that will happen? Personally I don't see it. I don't see how it's going to affect either of these two men. I might just add that I have the very very strong impression -- I don't know if you share it -- from talking to Taiwanese both here and in Washington, that there's some real friction between Chen and Hsieh Chang-ting [Frank Hsieh] over cross-Strait policies? Thank you.
Burghardt: I perhaps should have stressed that I think the referendum has the intention of trying to bind the hands of President Chen's successor, to define the agenda of cross-Strait relations after May 20th. I think both the new candidates are smart and practical politicians, and I think they'll find smart ways to deal with the situation they inherit. I think attempts to channel them probably will ultimately not be successful. But, nevertheless, the referendum affects the atmosphere. It affects the attitudes in the region. It makes it harder. And in such a delicate political situation as the cross-Strait relationship what's needed are moves that make relations easier, not moves that make them harder. That would be my answer to that.
Someone from the Taiwan press?
Kao Lin-yuan, United Evening News: Could you say more about -- you emphasized the U.S. urging the Taiwan position on the referendum. This referendum, if it passed, is more like a law binding the new president, which means you say many times to --
Burghardt: I didn't say that. I never used that phrase, actually. I never said it was a law binding the new president.
Question: In Taiwan law, a referendum, if passed, it's a law, so it will have to use the "Taiwan" name in the international community. Is that a serious concern related to the U.S. [inaudible]?
Burghardt: I'm not going to get into an analysis of Taiwan law. I would be in way over my head. But, actually, some people I've talked to have different views than the one you just expressed. I think the legal -- what I hear from my friends in Taiwan, and this includes blues as well as greens, is that the legally binding nature of the referendum is actually not all that clear. But you'd better ask Taiwan lawyers about that one, not me.
Ralph Jennings, Reuters: Regarding the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, there have been some comments in the media in the past year about what would really happen if there were a war with China. What is the U.S. prepared to do exactly? What level of help, and when would the help start?
Burghardt: I'm sure you don't really expect me to answer that question. [Laughter.] But obviously -- look, I live in Honolulu. I actually don't spend much time there, but I try to live there. I'm right down the road from the Pacific Command at Camp Smith. I spend a lot of time talking to people like Admiral Keating, the Pacific Commander, and to his staff. And the contingency planning for an emergency in the Taiwan Strait is a very big part of their job. I'm not telling you anything that's a secret.
The U.S. takes very seriously its commitments to Taiwan's defense. We all know the language of the Taiwan Relations Act. The language makes it clear that our constitutional procedures will have to be followed. It is not a blank check. It does leave a certain amount of ambiguity. That's the nature of our constitutional process. But I think people know that we take the commitment seriously. But of course we're not going to spell out precisely what we would do in what circumstances.
Shih Hsiu-chuan, Taipei Times: I'm wondering: did you share your views that [the] referendum will hurt the new leadership after next May, did you share that view with Ma Ying-jeou and Hsieh Chang-ting [Frank Hsieh]? And how did they respond to that?
Burghardt: We talked about all these issues. I talked about them with the two candidates as well as with the President. I'm going to let them speak for themselves as to what their reactions were. I might not get that right -- I don't know; it's up to them to say. But of course we talked about all that, yes.
Shih Hsiu-chuan, Taipei Times: I think you think the U.S. Government opposed the UN Referendum because you want to ensure an opportunity for [inaudible] leadership to deal with [inaudible]. I wonder, how do you assess the [inaudible] relationship during the election season? Do you think there is an immediate [inaudible] referendum plan?
Burghardt: I think the referendum has -- and not only the referendum itself but some of the comments about it made by political figures here -- have raised tensions across the Taiwan Strait. I think there's no question about that. As I said earlier, we were very clear in our comments to Beijing that it's important to keep those tensions under control. But frankly, whenever there's an election in Taiwan, the level of tension across the Taiwan Strait goes up somewhat. That's simply a reality of political life, I think.
Chris Wang, CNA: Does the result of the referendum mean anything to the U.S.? I mean, if it passed, if it passes, does the result of the referendum change the U.S. view on the cross-Strait issue? Or change the U.S. view on the collective will of the people of Taiwan?
Burghardt: I'm not completely sure I understand that. President Chen, for example had said a couple of times that, if it passes, that the U.S. will realize that its One China policy is wrong or something. Obviously, that's not going to happen. I think if it passes, as I said before, I think if it passes, it will add to the tension we just spoke about in terms of cross-Strait relations. It will create a period of some anxiety. The Mainland, Beijing, has made a number of threats and made a number of statements about how upset its people are. We'll have to see how they deal with that. That will create [inaudible] attention.
I think people will watch very carefully, listen very carefully, if it passes, to what people say about it. It will be very important what the president-elect says. It will be very important what other countries say. There will be some attention to what President Chen says. That's what I was referring to when I said they'll be very careful, that people have to be very careful, about their statements and their actions not only before and during the election, but also after the election. In many ways, the period right after the election will be a period in which prudent statements and actions will be particularly important.
Peter Enav, AP: When I spoke to President Chen yesterday he made the comment that the Chinese side has become much cleverer in recent years in dealing with the triangular relationship in the Western Pacific among Taiwan and the United States and the Mainland, particularly in terms of attacking Taiwanese positions. He suggested that what in fact the Chinese are doing is outsourcing antagonistic reaction toward Taiwan to the United States. I wonder if this view that the United States is being exploited by Beijing to hammer Taiwan has any resonance.
Burghardt: It's a clever line. I don't think President Chen really believes it. It is true that the leadership of China under Hu Jintao has been more adept, has taken a more sophisticated approach in dealing with Taiwan. That is certainly, I think -- every academic observer of China has made that point. But I think it's very important. There are sometimes -- it's quite interesting how the two sides of the Strait often mirror each other in impressions of things.
In Beijing there is an attempt to give a false impression that the U.S. and China are working together on Taiwan, are collaborating or co-managing the Taiwan issue. Beijing would love to have the world think that, and of course it's not true.
In Taiwan, sometimes, as in the statement that President Chen made to you, there is an attempt to almost -- to agree with that kind of view from Beijing in order to give the impression that, well, the U.S. doesn't really mean these things it's doing. There's something the U.S. is doing in order to keep Beijing happy, or it's doing because it's part of the overall U.S. relationship with China.
The U.S. is still a major power, a great power, which has its own interests and knows what its own interests are. We make decisions on national security policy based on our own calculation of our interests. We do not manage Taiwan in condominium with Beijing. Any such allegation by China or by anybody else is a false picture of U.S.-Taiwan policy.
Ralph Jennings, Reuters: Back to the referendum thing --
Burghardt: We have to still talk about that? [Laughter].
Ralph Jennings, Reuters: It's important. You said earlier that there's no -- I don't remember your exact words, but it's my understanding you would not get Taiwan into the United Nations just by passing it. So what is it exactly that the U.S. objects to? Is it the language? Other than binding the next President, what's problematic about it? It passes, and then what happens? Who says what? Who does what?
Burghardt: As was earlier stated by some of my colleagues in Washington, the language, by saying we want to join the UN under the name "Taiwan" is a way of, is a sort of clever way of going against the pledge to not change the name, not change the moniker. President Chen insists that it doesn't do that, but it does in fact appear to be a way to do it through the back door. That's one objection that we've been clear about. I think Mr. Christensen has already explained that very carefully.
The other thing that's of concern, besides the points we've made, [is] about how it affects stability, about how it ties the hands of the new president.
The other point is that there are constantly attempts to, by President Chen, by others, to explain what the referendum really means, what it really represents. These are sometimes very expansive. Those explanations, those explanations of the real meaning of the referendum also, if they don't violate the precise language of the four noes, they come pretty close sometimes.
For example, the statement -- there have been statements that the referendum will represent a vote against unification and for sovereignty. Well, it's not -- President Chen's right -- it's not explicitly a vote for independence, not in terms of the precise language of it. But saying that it's a vote against unification obviously goes beyond the precise language of the referendum itself. So all of these kinds of sorts of imaginative interpretations of what the referendum really means, one, they damage cross-Strait stability themselves; two, they leave us wondering what the next statement's going to be.
Shih Hsiu-chuan, Taipei Times: You have made a lot of [inaudible]. Do you think you have had any progress in resolving the disagreement on the issue?
Burghardt: I'm not sure it's the kind of issue you define that way. In politics, in foreign policy there are differences of opinion about things. People have different views.
I listen carefully to people, and I learned things here. I came to understand things about why people feel the way they do about things. That's helpful. I hope they understood a little bit more about our point of view also. That's about the best I can say.
And at this point -- on that I want to underline a point: I've lived in Taiwan twice. I lived here during the 1970s when I studied Chinese in Taichung. I lived here when I was AIT Director. I come back all the time. I think I have, I and people like Steve Young, who also has lived here many times throughout his life -- Doug Spelman, our new office director for Taiwan was here as the head of the Political Section. People here who have -- we know why things like the referendum come up. We understand the sentiments of the people about Taiwan. We understand the issues of identity in Taiwan. We understand the passion that there is about those issues. And, frankly, that kind of understanding is very useful when we meet people from Beijing who, frankly, for the most part, do not understand or maybe sometimes don't want to understand some of those Taiwan identity issues.
So our view about things like the referendum is not because we don't get it about what the mood is here and what the sentiments are here. It's because we really and truly take seriously the issue of stability in the Taiwan Strait. It is an issue that involves American commitments. It is an issue that could involve American lives, and it's not something to -- it's something that always requires prudent and careful action.
Dimitri Bruyas, China Post: About four yeas ago, the U.S. opposed also the referendum initiative by President Chen. So what eventually changed [inaudible] of the referendum to fit the U.S. objections? So are you working, is the U.S. working on a new formulation for the referendum? A change [inaudible] referendum that would fit like four years ago?
Burghardt: I was not involved in -- I was in Vietnam four years ago, so I was not involved in that process, so I can't [comment]. I'm not sure I completely understand exactly how that worked at the time.
I think I've described pretty well, this is the -- I think you've also seen, it's been very public, the kind of comments we've made. I think you know there have been discussions here in the past about combining the two referenda and so forth. None of those seem to have really gone anywhere.
I can only give you -- my personal expectation is that the two, and this is not -- I don't think the U.S. government has an opinion about this subject, but personally I think the two referenda will probably be held. It looks like they have the right number of numbers, and everyone who has spoken on it has been very clear they're not going to withdraw it and not going to change it. Those are the very clear public statements and private statements that everybody makes. So I have no reason to question their sincerity. So I guess we'll see both of those referenda, both the KMT referendum and the DPP referendum on the [inaudible].
AIT Press Officer: Thanks, everyone, for coming and for the very insightful questions.
Burghardt: People here always want to rush you along. We can take one more question if anybody has one -- Go ahead.
Kathrin Hille, Financial Times: You stressed the importance of the period immediately after the election. Are you worried -- that's the period when President Chen will still be in office -- are you worried most about what he will do between March and May next year?
Burghardt: I was really focusing in my comment about some statements that were made. Particularly if the referendum passes -- we get these constantly expansive statements about what it really means -- and if it passes, I wouldn't be surprised if there were even more expansive statements about what it really means. That's why -- but let me go back to an earlier question about what you asked in which I answered perhaps too abruptly about President Chen's assurances. I think President Chen's assurances were important. I wasn't just trying to say something positive, because it goes to the heart of this question you just asked. Because he made assurances that the referendum means what it says. He made assurances that the referendum does not represent a step toward de jure independence. He said he would stick with the four noes. Well, if you make overly expansive interpretations of the referendum, you're not sticking with the four noes. Therefore, that pledge is quite significant in terms of statements or actions that the President might make between March 22nd and May 20th. You're right, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep vigilant on the issue, but nevertheless the pledge was there yesterday. So we have to take it seriously.
AIT Press Officer: Thank you very much.