Thu, Dec 11, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Chen still defiant after Bush rebuke

UNPRECEDENTED The US leader told China's premier that Taiwan's use of referendums might try to change the status quo, which Washington strongly opposes

By Lin Chieh-yu and Charles Snyder  /  STAFF REPORTERS IN TAIPEI AND WASHINGTON

A defiant President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday reaffirmed his resolution to carry out a "defensive referendum" on the day of the presidential election -- March 20, next year -- to denounce China's military threat to Taiwan and demand the withdrawal of ballistic missiles which threaten the nation.

"The realization of a national referendum, which is set to maintain peace and the status quo of the Taiwan Strait, is not only significant to Taiwan's democracy but also is very important to the entire Asia-Pacific region and the rest the world," Chen said.

Chen's remarks came on the heels of an unprecedented rebuke from US President George W. Bush concerning Chen's aims.

Bush, Tuesday, personally and publicly criticized the referendum plan, confirming in strong terms the heightened concern of his administration that the plan could badly affect US interests by destabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

Bush made his remarks in a brief press conference at the end of a 40-minute meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) in the Oval Office.

Bush told reporters that he had just told Wen "we oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo.

"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."

And, while US spokesmen said the administration stuck to its policy that it "does not support Taiwan independence," Wen told the reporters that Bush reiterated to him US "opposition to Taiwan independence," a phrase Bush did not correct or object to.

"We very much appreciate the position adopted by President Bush toward the latest moves and developments in Taiwan, that is, the attempt to resort to referendums of various kinds as an excuse to pursue Taiwan independence," Wen told reporters.

No change on defense

But at the same time, a senior administration official disclosed that Bush also told Wen that if China uses force or coercion against Taiwan, then "we'll have to get involved."

Asked how that statement compared with Bush's pledge in April 2001 that he would do "whatever it took" to help in Taiwan's defense, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "In his comments to the Chinese, the president did make it very clear that he still sticks by what he said in the year 2001."

In a background briefing after the Bush-Wen meeting, the unnamed official said "the president's top goal is preserving the peace in the Taiwan Strait. We are in no way abandoning support for Taiwan's democracy or for the spread of freedom."

However, he said: "We're seeing developments on both sides of the Strait forcing us to drop some of the ambiguity that has been the policy in the past."

He said Bush told Wen "in no uncertain terms" that the US "would get involved if China tried to use coercion or force to unilaterally change the status of Taiwan." Bush was "very, very forceful on this issue," he said.

On the other hand, the official described Chen's moves as potentially dangerous. "We think anything that looks like a unilateral move toward independence on the part of Taiwan can start down a dangerous road," and is opposed by the Bush administration. "We don't welcome it. We urge caution," the official said.

No change intended

Chen, however denied that it was the intention of the referendum to change the status quo and continued to insist that its purpose was to bolster rather than disrupt stability in the Strait.

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