- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

From combined dispatches

TAIPEI — President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, in an interview published here yesterday, said that Taiwan next March will hold its long-promised referendum on whether China should withdraw ballistic missiles targeting the island and promise not to use force against it.

However, under pressure from Washington to ease rising tensions with Beijing, the president and leader of Taiwan’s pro-independence party promised U.S. officials that he would not hold a referendum on independence from China.

The interview, published on the Web site of the New York Times, is likely to raise tensions with the mainland, and was Mr. Chen’s most explicit statement yet of referendum plans that already have enraged Beijing.

Visiting U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, and Douglas Paal, Washington’s top envoy in Taipei, were told by Mr. Chen that the referendum he plans to hold during presidential elections next March is aimed at protecting the status quo.

“Most Taiwan people want peace and oppose missiles. A defensive referendum is to maintain the status quo, to prevent the situation from changing,” Mr. Chen said, according to a statement from his office.

“It does not involve the independence/reunification dispute.”

He said the referendum on the Chinese missiles would take place alongside presidential elections on March 20.

“The 23 million people of Taiwan will firmly demand that the People’s Republic of China immediately withdraw all the ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan and also openly and publicly announce and promise that they will not use force against Taiwan,” he told the paper.

Taiwan will undoubtedly top Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s agenda when he visits the United States next week on his most important trip since assuming office, although Washington will be keener to talk economics.

“Taiwan is returning as a key agenda item, no doubt about it,” said Joseph Cheng, a China watcher at City University of Hong Kong.

Briefing reporters ahead of the Chinese leader’s U.S. visit, Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong said in Beijing this week that China considers Taiwan the most important and sensitive issue between Beijing and Washington.

China wants the United States to stop selling arms to Taiwan, but U.S. officials are expected to seek to focus talks on shrinking a ballooning trade deficit.

The Voice of America reported that Mr. Zhou called Taiwan the main issue for China.

As if to dramatize China’s preoccupation with Taiwan, senior Chinese military officers warned Taiwan this week that it was staring into the abyss of war and the mainland was ready for “necessary” casualties if the island pursued its independence drive.

Gus Constantine contributed to this report.

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