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Chen stands up to Bush

Chen has accused Beijing of opposing all steps towards greater democracy in Taiwan over the years.
Chen has accused Beijing of opposing all steps towards greater democracy in Taiwan over the years.

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TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian says he won't be swayed from plans to hold a controversial referendum on China's missile threat despite a stinging rebuke from the U.S. president.

George W. Bush on Tuesday warned Taipei against holding a referendum that could antagonize China, saying he wanted to maintain the status quo between the two rivals.

Bush's warning -- made after he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the White House -- was described by analysts as the toughest American language used against a Taiwanese leader in decades.

But Chen stood firm on Wednesday, defending his plans to hold an "anti-missile, anti-war" vote on the election day scheduled for March -- a ballot that would demand China reduce its military threat against the island.

"A defensive referendum is for avoiding war and to help keep the Taiwanese people free of fear," Chen said at a meeting with U.S. Congressman Dan Burton in Taipei.

"We have no intention to change the status quo, but nor do we allow the status quo being forced to change. We want to maintain a status quo of peace and stability instead of one of missile deployment and military threat."

Though Taiwan argues a missile referendum does not violate Chen's pledge not to press for independence during his term as leader, the plans have infuriated Beijing which fears the ballot would pave the way for an eventual vote on independence.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must eventually reunify with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Beijing has also repeated that any moves by the self-ruled island towards independence would be met militarily, and has hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan.

Mounting tensions across the Taiwan Strait has put Washington in a quandary, as it finds itself caught between murmurs of independence for Taiwan, and Beijing's "One-China" policy.

Stuck between a commitment to defend Taiwan and the desire to increase economic and diplomatic relations with China, the Bush administration had been sending stronger signals for Chen to moderate his views.


The White House has become increasingly concerned Taipei's referendum plans would further stir up anti-Beijing sentiment -- possibly setting a precedent for popular votes on other sensitive issues, including independence for Taiwan.

Washington is also suspicious the entire exercise is designed to aid Chen's re-election campaign, prompting Bush's strong message on Tuesday.

"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said.

"And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Wen nodded as Bush's remarks were translated, and he said Beijing "appreciated" the president's statement. (Blunt warning)

Insisting he was "not looking to change the current status of Taiwan," an undeterred Chen described the island on Wednesday as "an independent and sovereign country."

He accused Beijing of opposing all steps towards greater democracy in Taiwan over the years, and appealed to the global community not to let China's leaders "unilaterally decide what is peace, what is democracy, what is a threat, what is a provocation."

CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy, speaking from Taiwan on Wednesday, said the island's Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said Taipei "understood" the U.S. concerns about the referendum.

Taiwan wanted to assure Washington the vote would not deal with the touchy issue of unification with China, Chien said on state radio Wednesday.

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