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Taiwan Independence Referendum Planned for March 20 - 2003-11-29

Taiwan President Chen Shui-Bian told a rally on Saturday that he plans to hold a referendum on Taiwan's sovereignty on election day, March 20. The announcement is likely to anger China, which is vehemently opposed to any hints of Taiwanese independence.

Arguing that he wished "to protect the sovereignty of our country from any alien threats and challenges," Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, says he is responsible for putting the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty to a referendum.

The president says he plans the referendum when Taiwanese voters go to the polls on March 20.

China and Taiwan split following a civil war in 1949. Although Taiwan is independently governed, China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and insists that the island must eventually return to the mainland, by force if necessary.

Beijing has repeatedly threatened war, if Taiwan formally declares independence.

On Thursday, Taiwan's parliament passed legislation allowing the island to hold referendums on politically explosive issues, such as a new constitution and national sovereignty.

Mr. Chen has staked his political career on gaining independent status for Taiwan, and was in favor of the new law. But the opposition parties that dominate the legislature pushed through a compromise that allows referendums only with the approval of the legislature.

Mr. Chen's statement on Saturday seems to indicate that he is taking advantage of a clause in the law that allows him to bypass the legislature and use the so-called "defensive referendum." Under this clause, the president can call a referendum, if the island faces a foreign threat.

China has not issued an official reaction to Mr. Chen's announcement. On Friday, a spokesman from China's Taiwan affairs office said Beijing was gravely concerned about the island's new legislation, but it stopped short of issuing threats of force.