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China Won't Interfere with Elections in Taiwan - 2004-02-11

China says it will not interfere in Taiwan's presidential elections next month. The assurance came amid rising tension over the elections, which Beijing fears might result in a move by the island toward independence.

The possibility of independence for Taiwan - which has been self-governed for more than five decades - is a key theme ahead of presidential elections next month. The race will pit incumbent President Chen Shui-bian, whose support lies largely among pro-independence circles, against those who oppose formal statehood for the island.

China considers Taiwan a part of its territory and has threatened to attack the island if it moves toward independence. Some Taiwanese have speculated that Beijing might attempt to help anti-independence parties in the March 20 elections. But on Wednesday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman, Zhang Mingqing, said Beijing does not intend to meddle in the Taiwanese poll at all. Mr. Zhang said China has never interfered and does not intend to do so now. He said China does not care who is elected. He said Beijing is only concerned about the attitude of the winner and what that will have on the development of relations with the mainland.

China does have a history of displaying force any time Taiwanese voters go to the polls. In the run-up to the 1996 elections, the Chinese military fired test missiles near Taiwan. Many interpreted the action as an attempt by Beijing to scare voters into supporting parties that oppose independence.

Professor of Politics Chi-yu Shih at National Taiwan University in Taipei says China is taking a different approach this time. "Beijing does not want to be portrayed as an enemy of Taiwan," he says. "The image of enemy is one that the government of Taipei has based its whole campaign strategy on."

Beijing has been angered by President Chen's plans to hold a referendum the same day as the elections. The referendum will ask voters whether Taiwan should boost its defenses if China does not stop pointing hundreds of missiles at the island.

The United States - Taiwan's biggest weapons supplier - on Wednesday said it, too, is concerned about the missile build-up.

U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, on a visit to Beijing, said he told Chinese officials the build-up is not contributing to a reduction of tensions in the Taiwan Strait.