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Taiwan Softens Referendum Language - 2004-01-16

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has repeated his intention to hold a referendum on March 20 that has raised tensions with China. The Taiwanese leader gave a televised speech Friday in an apparent bid to ease U.S. concerns over a possible war in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian laid out details of his planned "peace referendum," which he says will contain two questions.

The first will ask voters whether Taiwan should boost its anti-missile defenses if China refuses to stop pointing hundreds of missiles at the island. The second will ask whether Taiwan should open negotiations with China to establish peace and stability in the region.

The Taiwanese leader appeared to back away from the suggestion that he might move toward declaring Taiwan's independence. Both Washington and Beijing have warned against any such move.

Taiwan is self-governed, but China regards the island as part of its territory. Beijing has said it will use force if Taiwan declares independence or is slow to move toward reunification.

President Bush has warned both China and Taiwan not to take any unilateral action to change the island's status.

The Taiwanese leader on Friday sought to ease the concerns of the U.S. administration and of those in Taiwan who do not favor independence and perhaps to send a message to the leadership in Beijing as well.

In his televised remarks, President Chen said that on taking office four years ago, he promised he would not seek a declaration of independence, or any other outright move toward statehood as long as there is no intention by China's communist government to use force against Taiwan.

He said that despite Beijing's belligerent threats since then, he was "still willing to put forth every effort" to safeguard peace in the Taiwan Strait.

Chinese officials had no immediate response to Mr. Chen's remarks Friday.