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Taiwan's Chen Defends Move on Referendum
President Chen Shui-bian

The president, who is up for reelection, says the vote on ties with China is vital to democracy. The island is a sovereign nation, he asserts.

Sunday , February 8, 2004

By Tyler Marshall and Mark Magnier, Times Staff Writers

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Calling Taiwan a free and sovereign country, President Chen Shui-bian defended his decision to call a referendum on relations with mainland China and rejected international concerns that the move was a provocation that endangered the uneasy peace in the Taiwan Strait.

In an hourlong interview with The Times on Friday in his office, Chen repeatedly cast the March 20 referendum — Taiwan's first — as a vital next step for the island's emerging democracy whose impact would extend well beyond his presidency.

Chen characterized Beijing's denunciation of the upcoming vote as part of a broader attempt during the last 17 years to intimidate the island's 23 million people as they moved along the path to democracy. "We should be very confident in saying very loudly to the world that Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country," he said. "There is no need to be ambiguous."

Chen made his remarks against a backdrop of concern in many foreign capitals — including Washington — that the referendum would provoke Beijing to take countermeasures and could escalate decades-old tensions between Taiwan and the mainland into a major crisis.

In the past, comments by Chen and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, referring to Taiwan as an independent state caused flare-ups with China, which views the island as a breakaway province that must one day be reunited under mainland rule.

Beijing has warned that holding a referendum would be interpreted as a provocative step toward independence.

Chen said Friday that the referendum was "certainly not a provocation," arguing that he could have put far more politically sensitive issues to a vote but instead chose what he termed "these very humble, responsible questions."

The president is placing two questions before the electorate: Should the government buy new antimissile systems to counter the growing buildup of ballistic missiles Beijing has deployed along its coast opposite the island, and should the government open talks with Beijing to establish "a peace and stability framework" for cross-strait relations.

In the interview, Chen also played down the international diplomatic damage to Taiwan generated by the referendum, saying "one issue wouldn't cause a situation impossible to repair."

"I appreciate the concerns from the international community — particularly from the U.S. government and President Bush — and I can assure everybody that the Taiwan issue is certainly not a liability or a burden to the United States," Chen said.

In December 2003, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, President Bush warned Chen that America would oppose any unilateral change in the status quo, a delicate arrangement under which Taiwan has enjoyed most benefits of an independent state yet has left unchallenged China's claim over the island.

French President Jacques Chirac has called the initiative a "grave error" that could destabilize the region.

Chen, 54, a maritime lawyer who honed his political skills in the 1970s fighting to democratize Taiwan's then-authoritarian government, is in the final months of his four-year presidential term.

Speaking in measured Mandarin in Friday's interview, and gesturing occasionally for emphasis, Chen also:

• Stated that his plan to draft a new constitution for the island by 2006 — an idea that Beijing believed held equally dangerous implications — would be conducted "on the basis of the status quo" and would involve a series of internal issues aimed mainly at improving government efficiency. Drafters of a new constitution, many believe, will have to define Taiwan's boundaries — a move that may undo the political ambiguities on which the current peace rests.

• Called on nations to back his proposal, announced Tuesday, for creation of a demilitarized zone between the two adversaries and the start of a cross-strait dialogue based on "equality and reciprocity" to maintain peace in the region. "This proposal is responsible and should be supported by the international community," he said.

• Pledged that, if reelected, his second inaugural address would "say to the world that it is my duty, my historic mission and my strong conviction to maintain permanent peace across the Taiwan Strait…." Both the proposal and the inaugural speech preview appeared to be in part an exercise in damage control, as well as a high-profile attempt to pressure Beijing into talks.

Because the mainland sees Chen as a pro-independence figure, it has tried to isolate him personally and shunned his government since it took office in the spring of 2000.

Much of the anger directed at Chen from abroad stems from the timing of the referendum. It will be held on the same day he is seeking reelection in an extremely tight race for Taiwan's presidency. Chen has been accused by political opponents and some outside observers of engaging in a high-risk tactic of deliberately trying to provoke an angry reaction from China that might win him votes — an accusation he denied Friday.

The referendum law, enacted in November, allows a president to go to the electorate only with issues that pose an imminent threat to the island's security.

China's missile buildup has been taking place for several years and, at the time he announced the referendum, Chen claimed that 496 missiles were aimed at the island.

Although he declined to address how the missile threat had changed qualitatively since he took office, his remarks suggested a strong commitment to invoking the freshly minted referendum law as soon as possible.

Chen pledged Friday to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait — a status quo he defined as including Taiwan as an independent, sovereign country that carries the official name of Republic of China but which "has yet to become a normal and complete country."

Driven from the mainland in the late 1940s after losing a bitter 4-year-long civil war to the communists, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan with his armies to reestablish the Chinese republic.

But he never gave up his claim to rule China or his dream to return.

In a 1972 deal brokered to allow Beijing to assume China's seat in the United Nations without abandoning the Nationalists, the U.S., China and Taiwan agreed to a face-saving "one-China policy" under which China is labeled as a country under two governments awaiting eventual reunification.

As China's power expanded, most countries — including the United States in 1979 — eventually broke formal ties with Taipei. Today, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with 27 countries.

However, the passage of time and a series of unpleasant political incidents across the strait in recent years have loosened affinities for the mainland among a new generation of Taiwanese and eroded public sentiment on the island, both for the one-China policy and the idea of reunification.

Social scientists here say Beijing's refusal to allow a World Health Organization team to visit Taiwan at the height of last year's SARS crisis, coupled with an offhand remark by Beijing's WHO representative at the time that nobody cared about the island, had an enormous influence on public opinion toward the mainland. The comment was played repeatedly on Taiwanese television.

"This had a tremendous psychological impact," said Wu Yu-shan, director of the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, a government-funded research organization. "We were scared at the time, counting the dead."

It is a sentiment that has developed despite fast-growing trade ties and increased Taiwanese investment on the mainland. Cross-strait voice telephone traffic alone averages 54,000 hours each day, according to monitors.

"No one believes in the one-China policy here," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Taipei.

Wu and other political observers believe that Chen — a native of Taiwan whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates formal independence — is both riding and encouraging this shift in the public mood.

It is a mood that has enabled him to push the envelope on creating greater political distance from China and has forced the opposition Nationalists to abandon the "One China" they helped create.

Chen dismissed as a joke any idea that a new constitution for Taiwan might contain the claim of China's old boundaries as outlined in the Chiang-era constitution still used to govern the island — boundaries that include the present-day mainland and Mongolia. "I would not be so naive or so stupid as to claim our territory extends to these two countries," he said.

Wu said any such disavowal of the claim to mainland China would be a further erosion of the political ambiguity that had helped maintain peace in the region. "You're giving up the commitment to ultimate reunification, and that's what Beijing is most afraid of," he said.

Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I contributed to this report.