Ex-AIT chair warns Formosa Alliance on danger of Taiwan Independence referendum

Richard Bush at the Brookings Institution addressed an open letter to the leaders of the Formosa Alliance on Feb. 11

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Richard Bush of the Brooking Institution

Richard Bush of the Brooking Institution (By Wikimedia Commons)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Richard Bush, the former Chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and a current analyst for the U.S. think tank, the Brookings Institution, offered some cautionary advice for the Formosa Alliance, in a letter published Feb. 11.

In an open letter to Kuo Pei-hung (郭倍宏), the founder of the alliance and the Chairman of Formosa TV, Bush shares his concerns regarding the call for a public referendum on Taiwan independence, which is being promoted by the alliance.

The Formosa Alliance, established in April 2018, is calling on all Taiwanese people to demand a referendum according to the country’s new referendum laws (公民投票法), passed in December 2017 to hold a referendum in April 2019 to declare formal independence and apply for membership in the United Nations as “Taiwan.”

Bush worries that such a referendum could have negative consequences for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and could be a trigger for Chinese military action against Taiwan.

Although he praises the prudence of Taiwan’s President Tsai, Bush cautions that the Formosa alliance referendum could be construed as altering the status-quo, and that China may perceive it as a violation of its 2005 Anti-Secession Law, thereby triggering a military response.

The most surprising aspect of the letter is that the former AIT Chairman raises doubts about the Trump administration’s commitment to assisting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

While expressing concern over a shifting status-quo in the Taiwan Strait, Bush declares that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan “has never been absolute.” To emphasize this point, he reports that President Trump openly asked his national security team in January, 2018, “What do we get from protecting Taiwan?”

In his letter, Bush also offers some sober advice on the prospect of using a public referendum to determine Taiwan’s de jure independence. His pertinent comments are quoted below.

“If referendums are to be employed on routine policy issues, in my view, they should be crafted in a way so the result truly reflects the view of the majority of all citizens.…

All the more so when the referendum is on questions regarding the fundamental identity of a state and a nation. For these, it is a good thing to set a high bar for authorizing a referendum and passing a referendum. The stakes are so high and the consequences of being wrong are so great, that it is appropriate—even mandatory—to require a broad public consensus through a super-majority for passage. Witness the trouble that Great Britain is now in because only a simple majority of those voting for Brexit was required for passage.”

Another important piece of advice offered by Bush to the Formosa Alliance and the people of Taiwan, is that in the event of any move towards independence, they should maintain close communication with Washington and consider the broad implications of such actions for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

“If the men and women of the U.S. armed forces are to risk their lives for the safety of Taiwan, American leaders would want to be certain that such a sacrifice was clearly necessary in light of U.S. interests. At a minimum, U.S. leaders would insist, if actions by Taiwan created the risk of war and might trigger American intervention, that they be consulted in advance by the Taiwan authors of those actions. I wonder, therefore, whether you have thus consulted with anyone in authority in the U.S. government about the risks that your proposal might create.”

Richard Bush was Chairman of the AIT from 1997 to 2002. Recently, he also authored a letter arguing against a proposal by Republican lawmakers in the United States to invite President Tsai Ing-wen to Washington to address the U.S. Congress.

His full letter to Kuo Pei-hung and leaders of the Formosa Alliance can be read on the Brookings Institution website.