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Top U.S. Taiwan official resigns

From CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott

Shaheen is stepping down as Washington director of the AIT.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The head of the unofficial U.S. government office handling diplomatic relations with Taiwan has resigned, the State Department says.

Therese Shaheen, the Washington director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), submitted a resignation letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Colin Powell, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

The AIT is the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei.

According to Ereli, in the letter Shaheen "said that with the conclusion of elections in Taiwan, it was an appropriate time for her to step aside and said that she wanted to spend more time with her daughter and thanked the secretary for the opportunity to serve."

Ereli denied reports that Shaheen was replaced to satisfy China, which views her as pro-Taiwan. The Washington Times reported Wednesday that China had repeatedly pressed the U.S. to remove Shaheen.

"China never asked that Managing Director Shaheen be removed, nor would the United States in any way be responsive to such requests if they were made," Ereli said.

He declined to say whether Shaheen was asked to submit a resignation letter. Shaheen has been a controversial figure and has been criticized by China for publicly refuting its claims that the United States opposes Taiwan's independence.

China has threatened to forcibly reunite Taiwan, which it sees as a breakaway province, with the mainland if Taipei formally declares independence.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. pledges to sell Taiwan arms to defend it from attack.

In April 2001 President Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. During that year Bush signed off on the largest arms deal for Taiwan in years. Last week the Pentagon notified Congress of the administration's decision to sell Taiwan two long-range early warning radars worth $1.7 billion.

However, during a visit to the United States in December by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Bush said that recent actions by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian indicated Taiwan could "change the status quo, which we oppose."

China viewed Bush's comments as U.S. opposition to Taiwanese independence. But in an interview with Taiwanese reporters in 2003, Shaheen said that while the United States didn't support independence for Taiwan, it didn't oppose it.

Shaheen's resignation comes amid large protests in Taiwan over the re-election of Chen, who has been accused by the opposition of rigging the March 20 vote and staging an assassination attempt to garner a sympathy vote. (Full story)

Two referendum questions that accompanied the election were rendered void because they attracted responses from only about 45 percent of those eligible to vote, instead of the required 50 percent.

The questions were: 1. "If China refuses to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?"

2. "Would you agree that our government should engage in negotiations with China about the establishment of a 'peace and stability' framework for cross-strait interactions in order to build consensus and for the welfare of the peoples on both sides?"

A majority of those responding to the questions answered "yes". Before the election, China had attacked the referendum as a harbinger for a vote on the island's independence.

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