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Taiwanese Legislators Pass Independence Referendum Bill - 2003-11-27

Lawmakers in Taiwan have approved a bill allowing the president to call for an independence referendum. The measure, passed after a lengthy debate, is seen as an act of defiance against China.

China contends the measure passed by Taiwan's parliament late Thursday could be used as a step toward independence.

Once signed by Taiwan's president, the measure will allow the island's leader to call for a referendum on independence in the event that China threatens to invade.

Taiwan has governed itself since 1949, when Nationalists fled there to escape the Communist takeover of the mainland. China has called for eventual unification and has repeatedly vowed to invade the island if it formally declares independence.

But recently those warnings have been extended. Chinese officials have said that mere moves toward independence, such as a referendum on nationhood, could trigger a war.

Politics professor Philip Yang at the National Taiwan University in Taipei says there is a growing question of what will constitute a reason for China to attack.

"It is a bargaining process among Beijing, Taipei, and if you want to, add Washington, about where is the red line and who as the authority to define the red line," he said.

The United States has strong trade ties with China and Taiwan and has urged both sides to avoid confrontation. U.S. officials have called on either side not to unilaterally change the status quo.

China hopes the United States will persuade Taiwan officials to steer away from independence. Officials say Taiwan will be high on the agenda when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visits the United States next month.

Rhetoric across the Taiwan straits has intensified recently as Taiwan's March presidential election draws closer. The theme of nationhood has become a central topic in the re-election campaign of President Chen Shui-bian, who has called for a new constitution by 2006 and voiced his support for an independence referendum.