Given President Bush's resounding call last month for expanding democracy around the world, one might expect the United States to applaud the news that the elected leader of 23 million people was thinking about pushing for a new constitution to further the country's democratic progress.

But when the president of Taiwan recently said he intended to hold a national referendum that might lead to a new constitution, the United States didn't applaud -- and it shouldn't. This is a case where the Bush administration needs to balance the advancement of core American values with U.S. national interests. Despite the moral clarity of President Bush's speech to the National Endowment for Democracy on Nov. 6, American foreign policy sometimes requires a bit more nuance, something that shouldn't be considered a dirty word.

Some conservatives may find this objectionable. In his speech, Bush himself said that "in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." But with U.S. troops stretched thin in the Middle East and the administration looking for Chinese help in talks over North Korean nuclear weapons, a bit of stability isn't a bad thing. It might even help Taiwan solidify its own fledgling democratic institutions.

The topic will probably be on the agenda Tuesday when Bush meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who in a recent interview with The Post vowed to "pay any price" to defend China's national unity (China still maintains the notion of "one China" that includes Taiwan) and asked that the Bush administration be "crystal clear" in its opposition to Taiwanese independence.

A bit of background is in order. The Beijing regime has long warned that it would respond militarily if Taiwan were about to establish formal independence. Historically, the United States has urged restraint on both sides while deterring Chinese military pressure by signaling, with some small degree of ambiguity, that U.S. armed forces would come to Taiwan's aid if the island were attacked without provocation. The United States has also been Taiwan's major arms supplier. While Beijing, because of nationalism and concern about its own legitimacy, has stubbornly insisted on eventual unification with an island that has lived separately for half a century, it's also true that Taiwan has little to gain by courting confrontation. The thriving island already governs itself, albeit without formal recognition from others. Far from chafing under the yoke of oppression, Taiwanese enjoy freedom and sovereignty in all but name. Supporting the status quo does not involve a great compromise of American principles.

Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, who is in a tough reelection fight, is threatening to upset this uneasy equilibrium. He first wanted to hold a national referendum on a new constitution, seen in Beijing as tantamount to a formal declaration of independence. After Taiwan's legislature defeated that plan, Chen declared that he would push for a national plebiscite on a new constitution anyway. A new law empowers him to call for a "defensive" national referendum, which Chen wants to schedule for March 20, 2004, the same day as Taiwan's presidential elections. That referendum, which he says will demand that China withdraw missiles aimed at Taiwan and renounce the threat of force, could lure more of Chen's independence-minded supporters to the polls. China's leaders oppose both referendums; one would focus antagonism toward China and the other could close off the possibility of reunification. But if Beijing threatens war, as a Chinese general did last week, it will only produce further sympathy for Chen. Hence, the effort to enlist U.S. help.

A plausible case can be made for rejecting China's entreaties for U.S. diplomatic intervention. It seems hypocritical for Washington to call for democracy around the world while assisting a one-party regime in frustrating a new democracy's desire for self-determination. As William Kristol and Gary Schmitt wrote on the Weekly Standard's Web site last week, "Taiwan is a thriving democracy. The Beijing government remains a tyranny. Will the Bush administration stifle democracy in Taiwan -- actually demanding that it not hold popular votes -- to curry favor with the dictatorship?"

Chen's supporters argue that Chinese threats may be exaggerated; China also has much to fear from instability brought on by war. Moreover, they say, Beijing should bend to Taiwan's popular will. Their conclusion is obvious: President Bush should politely say no to his Chinese guest and warn China against any use of force.

The Bush administration will find it difficult, however, to let this value-based argument override the vital American national interests at stake. Given the centrality of the Taiwan issue in U.S.-China relations, Democratic and Republican administrations alike have supported democracy and freedom for Taiwan while maintaining a stable and cooperative relationship with China. When American policy loses its balance, the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangular relationship begins to come apart, to the detriment of all. Tensions over Taiwan have repeatedly frayed U.S.-China ties, most notably when President Clinton sent 16 warships to the area in response to missiles China fired near the island in an unsuccessful effort to intimidate Taiwanese voters in March 1996.

The Bush administration's initial response to Chen's referendum plan was entirely inadequate; it cautioned both sides against provocative behavior. In recent days, however, it has taken a more vigorous approach by having the National Security Council's senior director for Asia, James F. Moriarty, deliver a personal letter from Bush to Chen reportedly requesting that Chen not hold a referendum on Taiwan's sovereignty. This action -- if true -- could still prove to be inadequate. Chen might decide that he must keep to his current plans in order to win reelection and to achieve his longer-term goal of consolidating Taiwan's de facto independent status. Chen might also calculate that Bush earlier gave away whatever leverage the U.S. government held over him by providing a virtual security guarantee to the island. The Bush administration might also shy away from interfering in Taiwan's democratic process for fear of antagonizing Taiwan's allies in Congress.

What is happening on the island, however, is not simply, or even primarily, an exercise in democracy. A segment of Taiwan's political elite is manipulating the referendum issue to advance an agenda -- permanent separation from China. The vast majority of Taiwanese oppose any rapid move toward independence -- if it's going to bring conflict with China. How they view that danger depends on how the United States acts. There is no apparent reason for Taiwan's president to undertake this provocative course of action now, other than his need to garner votes. Any change in Taiwan's sovereign status should only occur after consultation with and approval by the U.S. government.

Washington has a right and a responsibility to exert influence over such a potentially dangerous move, given its security obligations throughout the Western Pacific, its historical commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, and its indispensable role in Taiwan's defense. Taiwan's democracy would not exist without the United States. Moreover, as a matter of principle and practice, the United States has not always supported the notion that democracy equals self-determination, whether in Quebec, Kosovo, Kurdistan, the Basque region or Somaliland (the northern part of Somalia). If Taiwan's behavior exposes the United States, and Asia, to military confrontation, the United States deserves a voice in that behavior. The Bush administration should thus make it "crystal clear" that America's strong support for Taiwan's democracy does not extend to condoning reckless acts that endanger everyone's ability to enjoy the fruits of that democracy. If Chen persists, Bush should directly and forcefully oppose a national referendum and be willing, if necessary, to apply economic, diplomatic and other forms of pressure to get Chen to stand down.

President Bush will be criticized in Taiwan and at home if he undertakes this preventive diplomacy. Many will accuse him of losing his "moral clarity." This would be unfair, because the president's action -- by maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and encouraging moderation in a vibrant, young democracy -- would promote both American values and interests.