Cross-straits tensions rise during Chinese premier's visit

U.S. President George W. Bush has called on Taiwan not to take any unilateral steps toward independence, during a meeting with the visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Washington, RFA reports.

"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said, sitting next to Wen in the Oval Office. "And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Earlier, U.S. officials said that Taiwan seemed to be "pushing the envelope pretty vigorously" with its plans for a March 20 island-wide referendum on cross-straits relations.

Cross-straits tensions traditionally run high during major elections on the democratic island, and Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian announced the referendum as his 2004 presidential election campaign moved into full swing. The presidential ballot will also be held in March 2004.

Taiwan responded to earlier U.S. criticism by saying that the referendum only demands that China stop pointing missiles at the island. Taiwan officials and the ruling party argue that the poll�Taiwan's first islandwide referendum�is vital to expanding the young democracy and protesting against China's missile threat.

"We need to widen our democracy, and we need U.S. support for this," Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said Tuesday.

Wen also repeated an earlier warning against any move that would seek to formalize the island's de facto independence. "The Chinese government respects the desire of people in Taiwan for democracy," Wen said. "But we must point out that the attempts of Taiwan authorities, headed by Chen Shui-bian, are only using democracy as an excuse and [an] attempt to resort to [a] defensive referendum to split Taiwan away from China."

"Such separatist activities are what the Chinese side can absolutely not accept and tolerate," Wen said.

Beijing has repeatedly warned it will use military force against Taiwan, which it sees as a rebel province, if it declares independence.

However, Washington also warned China Monday that U.S. opposition to any independence moves by Taiwan should not be seen as a green light for Beijing to launch military action against the island.

"We also don't want to see the mainland moving towards coercion, while equally we don't want to see Taiwan moving towards independence," a U.S. official said Monday.

The current verbal standoff was triggered last month, when Taiwan's parliament debated and then passed a law allowing referendums.

A senior member of Bush's National Security Council, Jim Moriarty, secretly traveled to Taiwan in recent weeks to underscore U.S. opposition to the referendum, U.S. official sources said.

Taiwan has been governed separately from the mainland since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) fled there after losing a civil war to the communists. #####


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