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Taiwan President Downplays 'Country' Status - 2002-08-06

Taiwan's president has cautioned against reading too much into his characterization Saturday of Taiwan and China as separate countries. Chen Shui-bian is having trouble formulating a new stance toward China that does not upset Taiwan's business community.

The administration of President Chen Shui-bian is trying to downplay the remarks on the island's status he made Saturday. During a video-conference, he said Taiwan and China are countries on each side of the Taiwan Strait. He also endorsed the idea of a referendum to decide Taiwan's future.

On Tuesday, however, he told members of his Democratic Progressive Party that it would be more accurate to say he was calling on Taiwan to "stand steady" on the basis of "sovereign parity." He added that he means the "sovereign, independent nation called the Republic of China," is "not a part of someone else, not a local government."

The Republic of China is the official name of the government that fled mainland China in 1949 after losing a civil war. Beijing insists that Taiwan is part of its territory and threatens to use military force if the island declares independence.

Beijing responded to Saturday's comments by angrily warning that Mr. Chen is endangering the stability in the region and relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Fan Xizhou is a professor at Xiamen University's Taiwan Research Institute in China. He says Mr. Chen's latest comments are not likely to ease Beijing's anger. He says Mr. Chen needs to repair the damage he caused and promise not to spark a crisis like this again.

At home, opposition politicians and business leaders are angry at Mr. Chen, too. That has pushed administration officials to downplay the possibility of any government move toward independence. Business leaders particularly are angry, because Beijing warned Mr. Chen's comments could hurt Taiwan's economy.

Mr. Chen finds himself walking a fine line between backing away from his statement and prodding Chinese leaders into a dialogue before he faces reelection in 2004.

He has little room to maneuver, however. His comments about "sovereign parity" sound similar to the terms his predecessor used in 1999, provoking fury from Beijing.

President Chen has been frustrated by Beijing's refusal to even talk about him in public and by its meetings with his political opposition. Mr. Chen now wants to form a campaign strategy that wins approval from his party activists, who support independence from China, and still bring Beijing to the negotiating table.