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Taiwan's President Defends Plan to Hold Referendum - 2003-12-04

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has told a visiting U.S. lawmaker that his plan to hold a referendum on the island is not a move toward independence.

The Taiwanese leader told U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman that a plan to hold a referendum in March is not meant to change the status quo.

President Chen Shui-bian has angered China by pushing for a public referendum next March. Beijing fears that could be used to move toward declaring independence. He has been vague about the topic for the referendum, which he wants to coincide with presidential elections.

Taiwan has governed itself separately since 1949, when Chinese nationalists fled there to escape a Communist takeover of the mainland. Beijing, however, considers the island part of its territory, and has threatened to invade, if Taiwan declares itself a sovereign state.

Washington has agreed, in three communiqués, to abide by a one-China policy and recognizes Beijing as the only government of a unified China. However, the United States is a main supplier of weapons to Taiwan and has pledged to defend the island, if China ever attacks.

The issue of Taiwan is to be high on the agenda next week, when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visits the United States.

At a regular briefing Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao said Mr. Wen will press the United States to abide by its accords.

Mr. Liu said that as long as the United States and China can proceed to maintain peace and stability, and as long as the two sides can abide by the three joint communiqués between the two countries, the visit will have a positive result.

The United States has warned Taiwan not to unilaterally change the status quo.

In his remarks to Senator Bingaman, Mr. Chen said the referendum bill passed by Taiwan's Parliament last week is aimed at preserving the island's current status.

The law allows a referendum to be held on various matters, including reforming the constitution, and on sovereignty issues if the island is under threat.

Mr. Chen's political party advocates declaring independence, although he has backed away from that position. Mr. Chen says he will abide by a pledge he made when he was elected, and will not seek to declare independence, unless China decides to attack.