Taiwan to hold referendum on missile threat

Sunday, December 7, 2003

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- President Chen Shui-bian wants Taiwan's first islandwide referendum to be a vote demanding that China stop threatening the island and remove hundreds of missiles aimed at it, an official said Saturday.

The purely symbolic vote -- planned for March 20 -- has already made Beijing and Washington nervous.

Chinese leaders fear that any kind of referendum could lead to an independence vote, something Beijing has repeatedly vowed to use force to stop.

The rivals have had icey relations since 1949 civil war when the Communists took over China and their enemy Nationalists fled to Taiwan. China's leadership says the island -- just 100 miles from the mainland -- is a sacred piece of Chinese territory worth going to war over.

The United States has helped defend Taiwan before and would likely be called to fight if another conflict broke out.

The Taiwanese president has yet to show any enthusiasm about China's goal of unification, and his Democratic Progressive Party favors allowing the Taiwanese to vote on their future.

When Chen announced last week he wanted to hold a referendum during the March 20 presidential election, some feared he might provoke China with some kind of ballot on the touchy sovereignty issue.

After keeping voters guessing for a week about what the referendum would be about, the presidential office revealed the details on Saturday.

"The missile issue will be on the referendum. That's for sure," presidential spokesman James Huang told The Associated Press.

During the past week, Chen dropped several hints that the vote would be about the more than 400 ballistic missiles China has deployed directly across from Taiwan.

On Saturday, Huang said Chen was adding a new twist to the missile referendum. The president would "consider calling off the March 20 referendum" if China redeployed the missiles and renounced the use of force against Taiwan, he said.

China is unlikely to agree to the demand without getting a guarantee on unification from the Taiwanese president. Without such a pledge, China would be reluctant to drop the war threats -- which help restrain many moderate Taiwanese from supporting immediate independence.

Polls consistently report that a large number of Taiwanese don't want to unify with China but oppose seeking formal independence for fear of sparking a war. They favor the status quo of de facto independence.

The issue began boiling about a week ago when Taiwanese lawmakers passed a law that legalized referendums. The measure was loaded with restrictions that would make calling an independence vote difficult.

Still, there was one exception: a vaguely worded article that allows the president to call a "defensive referendum" when Taiwan's sovereignty is threatened.

Taiwan's opposition, which controls the legislature, thought Chen would only call a "defensive referendum" when China was gearing up for war. His rival candidate in the presidential race, Lien Chan, has accused Chen of trying to use the vote to whip up support for his campaign.

"The missiles deployed by the Chinese Communists pose a serious threat, but they don't put Taiwan's sovereignty and the status quo in immediate danger," Lien said in a statement Saturday.

But Chen has argued the missiles constitute an imminent threat and that too many Taiwanese aren't fully aware of the danger. He says the vote will help wake up the public.

In Washington, the vote has rattled nerves. The U.S. State Department recently warned Chen not to hold a referendum that would unilaterally change the present situation. Chen quickly assured America that wasn't his intention.

The referendum issue will likely be at the top of the agenda when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits American this week. China has been leaning on the United States to help in reining in Taiwan.

Tai Wan-chin, an American studies professor at Tamkang University in suburban Taipei, said Chen realizes an independence vote would end friendly U.S.-Taiwan relations that are crucial to his reelection. For that reason, he said, Chen won't do anything provocative.

"Chen Shui-bian definitely knows what the ceiling is on the defensive referendum," Tai said.

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