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President Chen Shui-bian says Chinese missiles justify independence vote

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Plans outlined by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to call an island-wide referendum on the question of independence should China threaten military action have ratcheted up tensions across the Taiwan Strait, as Chen's presidential campaign gathers momentum, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report.

Chen, who is seeking re-election in March 2004, announced on Saturday his intention to hold a vote on the question on independence. China has repeatedly warned that such a move could lead to military action on its part. While the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan since coming to power in 1949, it regards the island as a renegade province of China.

"To protect the sovereignty of our country from any alien threats and changes, I'm obliged and responsible to put this issue to a referendum with the approval of the cabinet," Chen told a rally in the capital city.

He didn�t elaborate on what form such a referendum might take. Taiwan's parliament passed a law last week enshrining the right to hold referenda on contentious issues, including constitutional amendments, independence from China, and changes to Taiwan's official name, flag, and territory.

Later, Chen said Taiwan lived under constant threat of attack, with a total of 496 missiles aimed at it from the southeastern provinces of Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian�just across the Taiwan Strait. "They deployed the missiles to make ready for an invasion of Taiwan," Chen told a Sunday rally.

He said a defensive referendum should be pre-emptive by nature, according to the prominent United Daily News newspaper. "If we wait for the old Communists to really attack us, then we won�t have time, and holding a referendum would be useless," the newspaper quoted Chen as saying.

China has reacted strongly to the news. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said Taiwan had taken "a very dangerous path toward separation from the motherland."

Li said in an interview with Germany�s Der Spiegel magazine that China had the necessary means to defend its "sovereignty and territorial integrity," but he stopped short of threatening to use force.

Some political analysts and opposition politicians say Chen's announcement will escalate tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which always appear when the island enters a period of heightened political rhetoric in the run-up to major elections. Chen's advisers have called for public feedback on the issue.

Chen�s main aim in pursuing the referendum issue, said Zhu Xianrong of Beijing Union University�s Taiwan Affairs Research Institute, is political. "I believe that even though Chen Shuibian has been making a big issue out of the referendum dispute and adopting a tough stance toward the mainland, his real purpose has been to attract more votes for his election," Zhu told RFA's Mandarin service. "He wouldn�t like to see an outbreak of war, for that will first and foremost jeopardize his government."

"The final version of the referendum bill will not likely trigger any war actions, which will affect Taiwan�s elections," Wang Jiaying, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong�s Asia-Pacific Research Institute, said in an interview. "Taiwan put restrictions on the referendum bill. Even on the sovereignty issue, the referendum proposed is of a defensive nature. The final version does not clash with the Beijing-set bottom line, and therefore Beijing has to accept it even if it is not satisfied."

Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists, or KMT, fled there after losing a civil war to the Communists on the mainland. The KMT government�originally a socialist-style authoritarian party formed along the same lines as the Chinese and Russian Communist Parties�made the transition to democracy during the 1990s after 40 years of rapid economic growth. It lost the presidency to Chen in 2000 and its majority in the legislature in 2001 following a split in the party.

Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), initially came to prominence as a viable political opposition on a strongly pro-independence platform. It has since softened its stance somewhat.

Taiwan�as the Republic of China, over which the KMT once presided on the mainland�is recognized by very few diplomatic partners, and has been blocked by Beijing from representation as a sovereign nation in key international bodies such as the United Nations.#####


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