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Taiwan referendum could lead to war { December 3 2003 }

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December 3, 2003
Beijing Warns That Taiwan Referendum Could Lead to War

BEIJING, Dec. 3 Chinese military officers said today that Taiwan's leadership had pushed the island toward the "abyss of war" with its independence drive, making clear that China would consider a popular vote on Taiwan's political status as cause for war.

In lengthy interviews carried prominently by the official New China News Agency and other news outlets, the military officials also said that China would prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence even if that meant pushing the mainland economy into a recession or destroying its plans to be host to the 2008 Olympics.

"Chen has reached the mainland's bottom line on the Taiwan question," said Luo Yuan, a senior colonel with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, referring to Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-Bian. "If they refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referenda as an excuse to seek Taiwan independence, they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war."

Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian was quoted as saying that the mainland would attack without hesitation if Taiwan sought a formal split. "Taiwan independence means war," Mr. Peng said. "This is the word of 1.3 billion people, and we will keep our word."

The comments were the most strident in a barrage of explicit threats directed toward Taiwan in recent weeks by mainland leaders, and they may indicate a decisive shift in Beijing's approach to managing Taiwan affairs.

For the past several years, China has sought to downplay what it considers political provocations by Mr. Chen. Beijing has courted Taiwanese businessmen and promoted economic integration between the two adversaries, which have been politically divided since the Communists won a civil war in 1949, hoping to create a broader popular constituency in Taiwan that favors eventual reunification.

But mainland leaders, who regard Taiwan as a renegade province, now seem alarmed that softer cross-Straits diplomacy, and China's preoccupation with its extensive leadership transition, may have sent the wrong signals. They have now resumed making bellicose threats whenever they see Mr. Chen tip-toeing toward the edge of declaring independence, the kind of aggressive posturing that some American officials fear could spiral into armed conflict.

At issue is whether Taiwan will hold some kind of referendum, possibly in tandem with its presidential elections in March, that would broach the delicate subject of sovereignty.

Mr. Chen, fighting a tough battle for re-election, has promoted just such a referendum to invigorate his supporters, many of whom favor formal independence from the mainland.

The issue appeared to be defused last week, when Taiwan's Parliament, controlled by the main opposition party, stepped back from a direct confrontation with Beijing. The legislature passed a bill that would permit referendums on constitutional and sovereignty issues, but only under narrow circumstances. The law denies the president the authority to call a referendum on such issues himself, except in matters of national defense.

But Mr. Chen said over the weekend that he saw the law as giving him leeway to organize a referendum because doing so "would protect our country's sovereignty." He did not elaborate, but Mr. Chen has argued in the past that Taiwan must take active steps to protect its de facto independence against encroachment from the mainland.

Chinese military officers do not write articles or speak out in official interviews without clearance from the highest levels, and the comments of General Peng and Colonel Luo were clearly orchestrated to send the firmest possible message about China's agitation ahead of a visit to Washington next week by China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

General Peng listed the Olympics, loss of foreign investment, deterioration in foreign relations, economic slowdown or recession and "necessary" casualties by the army as costs China would willingly bear to reunify the mainland. He belittled the idea that China would not dare use military force against Taiwan in advance of the 2008 Olympics, which it campaigned for many years to play host.

The officers are directing the comments at the United States as well as Taiwan. Beijing officials and analysts say the Bush administration needs to take a firmer line against Taiwanese independence, an issue Mr. Wen seems certain to press during his meeting next week with President Bush.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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