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Taiwan President to Push Ahead on Referendum - 2003-12-10

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian says he will push ahead with a referendum, a day after the United States warned him against any moves that could lead toward independence from China. The Taiwanese leader defended his plan to call for a referendum in March. The plebiscite would decide whether Taiwan should demand that China stop pointing missiles at the island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

China has threatened to invade Taiwan if it declares independence, and has accused Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian of planning to use a new referendum law to move toward independence, instead of unification.

The United States has pledged to defend the island, which has been governed separately since 1949. On Tuesday, President Bush issued an unusually stern warning to Taiwan not to unilaterally make any decision to formally split from mainland China.

President Chen says the referendum he proposes is not about independence. In remarks Wednesday, the Taiwanese leader said his proposal aims to preserve the status quo by reducing the chance of a conflict between democratic Taiwan and communist China. Mr. Chen says the referendum is simply a call for China to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan.

The United States has sought to reassure Beijing that it does not support Taiwan's independence. President Bush on Tuesday reaffirmed to visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that Washington remains committed to a one-China policy.

On Wednesday, Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence party formally named him its candidate for the March 20 national elections.

Independence has been a central theme of Mr. Chen's re-election campaign, but some observers are warning the issue may damage his chances. They point to polls in which a majority of Taiwanese surveyed say they favor no change in the island's current status.

Politics Professor Yung Wei at Taipei's National Chiao-Tung University says Mr. Chen must work to promote his agenda without angering the United States. "In his heart, there's no question he's a separatist," he says. "But whether he will push this far at this time will depend on how far he can push to win votes without creating a situation where Taiwan's immediate security will be threatened without American support."

Although China has recently stepped up its warnings to Taiwan and threatened to use force, Professor Wei and other analysts say a cross-straits war is not imminent. China's rhetoric thus far has been more subdued than in past years.

Despite recent sparring over trade and other issues, officials on both sides of the Pacific say relations between China and the United States are perhaps the best they have been in decades. Analysts say that may mean China will be reluctant to jeopardize its relationship with Washington by attacking Taiwan.