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Taiwan Calls for Demilitarized Zone on Border with China - 2004-02-03

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is calling for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in a bid to get China to stop pointing hundreds of missiles at the island.

President Chen did not specify where the demilitarized zone might be. Taiwan maintains troops on small islands near the Chinese mainland, while China has a large force, including manpower and missiles on its eastern shore facing Taiwan.

The Taiwanese president on Tuesday called for setting up an area in which combat personnel, equipment and missiles would be removed. He also called for a mechanism to facilitate negotiation between the democratic island and the communist mainland. Mr. Chen said the two sides should exchange envoys, establish liaison offices in Taipei and Beijing and exchange visits between officers of the two rival military forces.

There was no immediate comment from officials in Beijing on Mr. Chen's proposal. In the past, the Chinese government has rebuffed Taiwanese offers to negotiate. Beijing has insisted that Taipei first recognize the so-called one China principle.

Taiwan has been self-governed for more than a half-century, but China considers it a part of its territory. Beijing has vowed to use force against the island if it moves toward formal independence or is slow to seek unification with the mainland.

Tensions have risen in the run-up to national elections on March 20, when President Chen will seek a second term. Mr. Chen has angered Beijing by calling a referendum the same day, in which voters will be asked to decide whether Taiwan should boost its defenses if China threatens the island.

Opponents of the Taiwanese leader have accused him of raising the independence issue for political gain.

Politics professor Szu-Yin Ho at Taipei's National Chengchi University says Tuesday's appeal for a demilitarized zone and a negotiating mechanism appears to be aimed at voters - especially those who fear that Mr. Chen could be alienating the international community.

"The audience is the local voters," he said. "Without the support of the international community, Taiwan really cannot survive politically. Voters here know that. If voters have some qualms with this referendum, Chen has to soothe these voters so as to attract their votes on March 20."

The United States, which is Taiwan's chief weapons supplier, has an agreement to defend the island if China attacks. However, the Bush Administration has warned both sides not to take any unilateral action to change the island's status.

Japan and France, two of Taiwan's major trading partners, have also recently affirmed to Beijing that they support the one-China policy and have urged Mr. Chen to avoid a confrontation with the mainland.