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US Presses Taiwan to Drop Referendum Plan


The United States has again called for Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to drop plans to hold a referendum on whether the island should apply for U.N. membership under the name Taiwan. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte says such a move would be a mistake.

The Bush administration is stepping up pressure on Mr. Chen to drop the referendum plan, with Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte calling it mistaken. He urged the island's leadership to, as he put it, behave in a responsible manner.

The Taiwanese leader has proposed holding the referendum on U.N. membership concurrently with a presidential election set for March.

The United States has been critical of the idea before. But the Negroponte comments, in an interview Monday with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, were the strongest to date, and the State Department made unusual efforts to draw attention to them.

The deputy secretary said the U.S. officials have great concerns about the plan because they see it as a step toward a declaration of independence for Taiwan, a move that would alter the delicate status quo with China.

Taiwan quickly responded, with the island's Foreign Minister James Huang expressing regret over the Negroponte remarks and saying he believes the number-two State Department official has misinterpreted Mr. Chen's plan.

In a talk with reporters Tuesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said Mr. Chen had promised not to upset the status quo when he took office in 2000, and that Negroponte was expressing long-standing U.S views:

"We have always said that we do not want to see any unilateral actions taken that would change the status quo," Casey said. "And I think we have made quite clear as he did in that interview that the referendum raises a number of serious concerns that touch on that. I do not look at this as anything new, and I do not think - if you read it - that it should come as any surprise to people that he is stating what has really long been our view on this subject."

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979 but maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan through nominally-private institutes in Washington and Taipei.

In the Phoenix TV interview, Negroponte said the United States is very committed to the defense of Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act by the U.S. Congress, which provides for sales of defensive weapons to the island.

He said Taiwan has no better friend than the United States, which supports Taiwan's democracy and economy. But he also said it is a time for Taiwanese authorities to behave responsibly and not disturb the situation across the Taiwan Strait.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force in dealing with the issue.

Mr. Chen's referendum plans notwithstanding, Taiwan stands no chance of having separate United Nations membership because of China's veto powers there. The United Nations summarily dismissed a Taiwanese membership application only last month.

Reflecting a strained relationship, the Bush administration allowed Mr. Chen only a brief refueling stop in Alaska last week on a trip to Central America.

He had been allowed to transit through the continental U.S. in past trips to the region, and is reported to have complained that the latest arrangement was disrespectful. Mr. Chen is due to return to Taiwan, again via Alaska, on Wednesday.


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