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Taiwan president pushes further toward independence

President Chen Shui-bian on Saturday backed a referendum for a formal break from Beijing.

With China's ruling elite huddled at a seaside resort to decide its future leaders, Taiwan's feisty President Chen Shui-bian has gone leagues past previous statements to outline a future Taiwan legally separate from the Chinese mainland.

Speaking before a world body of pro-independence Taiwanese on Saturday, President Chen backed a proposed referendum on Taiwan's independence, and used concepts and language rarely heard openly in statements about cross-strait relations.

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"Our Taiwan is not someone else's local government, not someone else's province," Mr. Chen said in an emotional speech, in which he stood and threw his hands over his head. "I encourage everyone to seriously consider the importance and urgency of passing legislation on a referendum."

In the intricate back and forth between Beijing and Taipei, such language echoes across the Taiwan strait like a grenade in an empty barrel.

Beijing did not immediately react to Chen's statements, other than to say China will "never tolerate" an independent Taiwan. China has long viewed Taiwan as inescapably part of the Chinese motherland. Officials here have stated repeatedly that a declaration of independence by Taiwan would be viewed as an act of war.

In recent years, with China steadily rising as an economic world power, and with the handover of Hong Kong and Macao to China by Great Britain and Portugal, a Beijing-led Taiwan is seen here as the crown jewel in China's consolidation of regional superiority and future superpower status.

Mr. Chen was elected in 2000 on a party platform that included the independence of Taiwan as one of its main planks. The election was the first political expression on the island of 23 million of a rise of native ethnic Taiwanese sentiment – and it infuriated Beijing. Until last month, Chen had, in public, stayed away from independence statements that will bring Beijing's ire.

Why Chen has suddenly seemed to provoke Taiwan's giant neighbor is not yet clear. In recent weeks, Chen has asked Beijing to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan, as a gesture of goodwill in starting talks over the future of the two sides. Beijing, through statements by the People's Liberation Army, has rejected such requests.

Currently, according to US military sources, China is adding missiles along the coast of Fujian province, near Taiwan. In recent months China has taken steps toward adding submarines to its Navy, which could compromise Taiwan's defensive status.

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Some analysts feel Chen's bold speech may actually stem from weakness, a concern in Taipei that China's recent strategy toward the island is working. In the past year, China has largely abandoned the firebreathing rhetoric of military attack on Taiwan, which it terms a "renegade province." Beijing has instead adopted a "soft" or "friendly" offensive that views unification as a long-term strategy of economic and cultural integration.

In this view, Chen is hoping for an ultra-hawkish reaction by China that he can use as vote-getting fodder in upcoming elections.

Whatever the motive, analysts say, Chen is playing a high-stakes game by threatening to make explicit through a vote by the Taiwanese people what the ruling party says is already implicit about their status: that Taiwan is a sovereign state.

For more than 50 years after the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong, the chief aim of Taiwan, learned by every schoolchild, was to recapture the mainland. During the 1990s, the absurdity of that position became acceptable to talk about in a democratizing Taiwan. The election of Chen signaled the end of that claim, many analysts say.

China's starting point for talks on Taiwan is a "one country, two systems" formula not unlike relations between Hong Kong and China today. Taiwan has rejected that formula.

Chen's starting point, outlined in a May 1999 "Resolution on Taiwan's Future," is that Taiwan is already "an independent and sovereign state."

Taiwan's ruling party platform hasn't changed, analysts say. What's changed over the weekend is that Chen is saying it.