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Monday, November 22, 2004 > Taiwan's president threatens referendum on island's future

TAIPEI : In a move likely to anger China, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has vowed to push through a new constitution describing the island as an independent state and threatened to hold a referendum on Taiwan's future.

In campaigning for candidates from his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ahead of December 11 parliamentary elections, President Chen Shui-bian appeared to turn away from recent conciliatory gestures towards Beijing.

Chen said Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory, needed a new constitution to reflect changes on the island which has been ruled as a de facto independent state for over half a century.

"What we need are substantial changes ... and it is a new law," Chen told a rally on Sunday.

"Only with a DPP majority in parliament can we smoothly push for the new constitution which fits today's realities in Taiwan," said Chen.

Chen also threatened to hold a referendum on Taiwan's future if Beijing pushed "too hard" for the island to reunify with the mainland.

He said the people of Taiwan rejected China's offer of reunification under the "One Country, Two Systems" formula which saw the former British colony of Hong Kong return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Chen also said Taiwan did not accept Beijing's "One China Principle", which states the island is an integral part of Chinese territory.

"If China pushes too hard, we might as well put the issue up for a referendum," Chen told the rally.

China has been steadily building up missiles along its southeastern coast opposite Taiwan in a move the Taiwanese government says is aimed at intimidating the island into returning to Beijing's rule.

Earlier Sunday, Chen told a seminar that Taiwan was an "independent, sovereign state" and constitutional reforms were essential to "protect human rights, boost government efficiency, and upgrade the country's competitiveness."

China has said it will consider a new constitution or a vote on the island's future tantamount to a declaration of independence, something it has threatened to oppose with military force.

Chen's uncompromising talk came as Chinese President Hu Jintao Sunday held a short but unprecedented meeting with Taiwan's representative to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Chile.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said that Hu told the envoy Taiwan must accept Chinese sovereignty. Kong refused to say whether the conversation indicated a change in China's attitude towards Taiwan.

Taiwan, an island off the southeastern Chinese coast, has been ruled separately from mainland China since nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after their defeat by the communists in a civil war.

Chen angered Beijing by holding the island's first island-wide plebiscite alongside national elections in March, but since his re-election he has reached out to Beijing with an offer of peace talks.

Chen's latest comments were a response to Lien Chen, the leader of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), who challenged the president to hold a vote on the future of relations with China alongside the parliamentary polls.

"Chen has been talking about independence and changing name of our country. If he really has the guts, why not hold a referendum and let the people say whether they prefer the status quo or independence for their country," Lien told supporters at a weekend rally.

Lien, who lost the March 19 presidential elections to Chen by just 0.22 percent of the vote, said he too rejected China's terms for reunification.

"But the KMT calls for a policy which is peaceful, recriprocal and rational instead of one which is provocative and threatens to take the two sides to the verge of war," Lien said.