Reuters News Report


Taiwan President Backs Independence Referendum

Saturday August 3rd 2002

Taipei (Reuters) -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian said on Saturday he backed legislation for a referendum to decide whether the island should formally declare independence from China, turning up the rhetoric to an unprecedented level.

Holding a ``referendum is a basic human right that cannot be deprived or restricted,'' Chen told a gathering of pro-independence activists in Tokyo during a video conference.

``I want to sincerely urge and encourage everybody to seriously consider the importance and urgency of passing legislation on a referendum,'' Chen said in his toughest remarks against Beijing since taking office in 2000. He did not give a timetable.

There was no immediate comment from Beijing, which has threatened to attack Taiwan if the democratic island of 23 million declares independence or drags its feet on reunification talks.

Military analysts say China does not yet have the military means to carry out its threat but it is modernizing its armed forces and the balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait will move in its favor between 2005 and 2010.

Some analysts say Chen appears to be frustrated with a three-year-old impasse in cross-strait ties and has decided to take a harder line in an apparent bid to force Beijing to the negotiating table.

Hardening stance

Chen has hardened his stance since Beijing established diplomatic relations with one of the island's tiny band of allies, Nauru, on the day he assumed the chairmanship of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) last month.

Taipei and Beijing have been diplomatic and military rivals since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, but paradoxically, their economies have become increasingly intertwined. Civilian and cultural exchanges have boomed.

Nauru, a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean with 12,000 people and a moonscape from an almost exhausted phosphate mine, has little to offer but China and Taiwan have vied for its support.

Political analysts said Chen's hardened stance could hurt the chances of better bilateral ties ahead of China's expected leadership change at a Communist Party congress later this year.

Some analysts think Chen sees China's leadership as distracted by intense politics surrounding the looming change and is using the opportunity to get closer to U.S. President George W Bush, who has pledged to do ``whatever it takes'' to defend Taiwan.

``Tensions between the two sides will mount. He should not have provoked the mainland,'' said Liu Bih-rong, a political scientist at Taipei's private Soochow University.

``This negates the goodwill he has expressed,'' Liu said. ``But he has said different things to different people on different occasions. I expect him to mellow his stance in two weeks.''

Not a local government

The rhetoric from Chen will makes pro-independence supporters feel good ahead of Taiwan mayoral elections in December.

``Taiwan is not a part of another country, not a local government or province of another country,'' Chen said.

``In other words, Taiwan and China on the opposite side (of the Strait) is one country on each side. We must be clear about this,'' Chen said, echoing his predecessor's 1999 redefinition of bilateral ties as ``special state to state'' which riled Beijing.

Chen stood up after the speech and pumped his right hand into the air repeatedly when the master of ceremonies shouted: ``Taiwan stands up'' and ``Taiwan walks its own path.''

But in an apparent move to cushion the impact of Chen's speech, paper cuttings of Chinese characters reading: ``Office of the President of the Republic of China'' -- Taiwan's official name -- hung in the background while he spoke.

Days after Nauru's switch, Chen said Taipei would ``take its own path'' if Beijing does not respond to the island's goodwill. He elaborated on Saturday, saying he meant the path of ``democracy, freedom, human rights and peace.''

China had responded with accusations that Chen risked war and damaged hopes of a peaceful solution.

Beijing is deeply suspicious of Chen even though he has mellowed his pro-independence stance since taking office. Chen has rejected Beijing's call that he embrace its ``one China'' policy in order for dialogue between the neighbors to resume.

But Chen has also urged Taiwan businessmen to diversify investments away from China to Southeast Asia.

Taiwan's government faces increasing pressure from business leaders to embrace closer commercial links with the mainland as the island recovers from its worst ever recession.