- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

From combined dispatches

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Lawmakers of the Republic of China (Taiwan) yesterday gave their president power to call a referendum on independence if Beijing appears ready to invade the island in the name of unification.

The watershed measure was passed in a legislative session that stretched late into the night. It now has to be signed into law by pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian, a step seen as a formality.

For Taiwan, where legislators once did not dare support referendums for fear of provoking China, 100 miles away across the Taiwan Strait, the vote demonstrated how much democracy has evolved.

Chinese leaders insist Taiwan is part of their nation’s territory, though the communist government never has ruled the island since taking over the mainland in 1949.

Beijing has warned the Taiwanese repeatedly they must unify eventually or face a devastating war — a conflict that could involve Taiwan’s closest ally, the United States. China tested missiles near Taiwan in 1996 when the island held its first direct presidential election.

China’s latest threat came Wednesday, when it warned Taiwan that referendums on sovereignty issues could “bring disaster to Taiwan’s people.”

Analysts and diplomats expect angry statements from China in coming days, but said the compromise bill — which watered down some of the pro-independence camp’s more strident demands — reduced the risk of military retaliation from Beijing.

A Western diplomat in Beijing also pointed to the forthcoming trip to the United States by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as one reason for a measured Chinese response.

“Strong statements, yes, but with one eye on the U.S.,” the diplomat said. “I’m not sure that they will go beyond what we’ve seen so far. My sense is that prior to the visit by Wen Jiabao to Washington, I think we’re going to get strident statements, yes, but nothing more yet.”

Lawmaker Chou Hsi-wei of the opposition People First Party said China probably will be angered by yesterday’s vote, but added: “We call on others to respect our democracy, freedom and rule of law.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment and referred questions to the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, where telephones rang unanswered.

Several hundred referendum supporters rallied outside Taiwan’s legislature during the vote.

“Any country, including America, Japan and China, shouldn’t interfere with our referendum rights. It’s our basic right,” said one demonstrator, who gave only his surname, Wu.

The island’s jittery stock market closed down 2 percent amid fears the vote would provoke China, dealers said.

Taiwan is in the middle of a tight presidential campaign, and one of Mr. Chen’s key issues has been expanding the island’s democracy by legalizing referendums.

The opposition — which controls the legislature — initially opposed that idea, saying it could provoke China. Opposition lawmakers changed their position because they were worried about appearing undemocratic and too sympathetic to China.

Legislators finally gave the president power to hold a “defensive referendum” if Taiwan faces an external threat — such as from China.

Since his upset election victory in 2000, Mr. Chen has promised not to hold an independence vote as long as China does not try to take over the island.

The legislature rejected a proposal for a more sweeping referendum that would have allowed sovereignty-related votes without restrictions.

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