Taiwan leader plans plebiscite on China

Referendum would urge Beijing to withdraw missiles aimed at island


TAIPEI, Taiwan - President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan said in an interview here yesterday that he planned a referendum for March calling on China to withdraw ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and demanding that China renounce the use of force against the island.

Chen's insistence on holding a referendum is likely to heighten tensions across the Taiwan Strait - already at their highest point in several years - and comes at an awkward time for President Bush, who will receive China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, at the White House next week.

China has urged Washington to oppose more firmly what Beijing sees as Chen's desperate election-season effort to excite anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan. The Bush administration has made clear that it does not want a fresh crisis when it is deeply engaged in other hot spots and depends on China's assistance to shut down North Korea's nuclear program.

In the interview, Chen said that the planned referendum would not involve independence, the touchiest issue from the perspective of mainland China. But Beijing has expressed alarm about the precedent of holding plebiscites on sensitive political topics.

On Wednesday, senior Chinese military officers publicly warned that Taiwan was facing an "abyss of war" and said that China was willing to accept boycotts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, reduced foreign investment and military casualties to prevent Taiwan from using a referendum to advance the cause of independence.

Chen contended that a referendum would help make people here and countries around the world more aware of what he described as an imminent and growing military threat from China, and that this would reduce the risk of a conflict. "Some argue that holding such a defensive referendum might send our children to the front line," he said. "In fact, the opposite is true."

Many people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait say that the political confrontation between the two sides has reached the highest level since 1996, when China lobbed missiles into Taiwan's shipping lanes in an unsuccessful effort to dissuade voters from choosing Lee Teng-hui, a presidential candidate seen by Beijing as seeking greater independence.

Chen said that he planned to hold the referendum on Election Day, March 20. He is seeking re-election and his race with the Nationalist Party candidate, Lien Chan, who favors a less confrontational approach to mainland China, is too close to call.

Chen said that he had informed the United States of his plans for the referendum, and he appealed for support on the grounds that Taiwan's democratic development needed strong U.S. backing. That argument seems likely to elicit sympathy from Taiwan's supporters in Congress and among neoconservative supporters of the Bush administration.

The State Department has bluntly discouraged Chen from holding a referendum on independence issues. But the administration has yet to respond to his new initiative to focus the referendum on China's military posture, especially as the precise wording has not been set.

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