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How a Taiwan maverick is testing US-China ties

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President Chen Shui-bian is on the campaign trail, tossing himself into mobbing crowds, pushing the envelope, and liberally using the 1,000-volt word that nobody in Beijing wants to hear: referendum.

So Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on his first official US visit, talked Taiwan with President Bush Tuesday, asking him to rein in Mr. Chen, whose planned March 20 referendum on removing Chinese missiles from the Fujian coastline is creating greater strain than anyone imagined. Before a Christmas hearth in the Oval Office, Mr. Wen heard what he was hoping for: a new opposition by the US to any "unilateral actions" by China or Taiwan to change the status quo.

Taiwan's president was raised in the country, not Taipei, and he first captured national attention as a sharp trial lawyer, not through old family contacts. As Chen formally announces his reelection bid Wednesday, he is thrusting himself and Taiwan into the court of public and international opinion - and East Asia is quivering. Not only is Chen politicking for office, he's making a case that China, not Taiwan, is the one creating problems by aiming some 500 missiles at the island of 23 million.

At a rally that opened with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its proclamations of the brotherhood of man, Chen stated that a national vote on Taiwan security is needed "for peace, democracy, and to oppose missiles and to oppose war and not allow our children to go to war."

In China, them's fighting words. Chen is dancing up and down a red line that China has long imposed on Taiwan. He has angered Chinese generals and caused senior White House officials to state this week that, "We are giving the Taiwanese the message very clearly and very authoritatively that we don't want to see steps toward independence." Chen responded on Tuesday that he plans to push ahead with a vote that many see as partaking in the spirit, if not the letter, of independence.


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