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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 February, 2004, 17:39 GMT
Taiwan leader seeks peace vote

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's call on China to set up a demilitarised zone is aimed not so much at his implacable foes in Beijing as at wavering voters at home.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian (centre) at an election rally in Taichung on Sunday
Opponents accuse Chen of using the referendum as an election ploy

Taiwan elections are invariably dominated by the tense relationship with China and next month's presidential poll will be no exception, say analysts.

"He wants to create the image of a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker," said Professor Andrew Yang, one of Taiwan's leading specialists on cross-Straits relations.

President Chen created a lot of controversy with his plan to hold a referendum alongside the election and is now trying to explain that his purpose is not to provoke Beijing but to calm things down, Professor Yang told BBC News Online.

China, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory, sees the referendum as a step towards independence and therefore war.

A demilitarised Taiwan would be good for the whole region
Yen Xuetong, Beijing's Institute of International Studies

A mouthpiece of the Chinese communist party has given an idea of Beijing's current mood, describing the referendum as a provocation and the dispatch of troops by China as a "justified response".

Outlook magazine said military action against Taiwan in such circumstances would receive the support and sympathy of the international community.

'Winning votes'

Mr Chen has already had to tone down the wording of his referendum to appease Taiwan's main military ally, the United States.

Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) form a human chain in support of referendum plans.
Pro-independence voters back the 20 March referendum

China has yet to comment officially on Mr Chen's proposal for a demilitarised zone and an exchange of envoys, but will almost certainly give it short shrift.

"Chen Shui-bian doesn't care about peace. His main concern is winning votes - and independence," said Professor Yen Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

China's reaction to a demilitarised zone would depend on where that zone was, Professor Yen told BBC World Service's East Asia Today programme.

"If it meant a demilitarised Taiwan it would be welcome. It would be good for peace in the whole region," he said.

Asked about China's hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan, he said China had a right to deploy missiles on its territory - and this territory, he added, included the island of Taiwan itself.

Buffer zone

Mr Chen, who said China was increasing its missile arsenal against Taiwan at a rate of one every six days, called for the creation of a "buffer zone in time and space", involving the removal of combat personnel and equipment.

Before negotiations you do not put all your cards on the table
Alexander Huang, Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council
Further details of his plan - such as the location of the zone - will not be available for some days, according to Taiwanese Government officials.

The concrete proposals will require further discussion between the Ministry of Defence and other government departments, said Dr Alexander Huang, vice-chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

The president's purpose was to show his good intentions and his willingness to exchange ideas with China, said Dr Huang.

"This is just one of about 30 proposals we would like to discuss with the other side. Before negotiations you do not put all your cards on the table," Dr Huang told the BBC.


Mr Chen is being accused by the opposition and some analysts of rushing out a vague and unrealistic set of proposals as a direct response to a peace plan produced in recent days by rival presidential candidate Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party.

"It is all very abstract - a statement of principle rather than substance," said one observer.

"I don't know how serious he is. It's still too early to talk about a real demilitarised zone," said another.

It's thought the most likely focus of such a zone would be the island of Jinmen, a small Taiwan-held island just off the Chinese coast.

At the height of the cold war stand-off in the 1950s and 60s, Jinmen bristled with weapons and was subjected to daily fire from across the water.

Today it is quiet and already a virtually neutral and demilitarised halfway point.

Rival peace plans

The "peace zone" recently proposed by the KMT would include both Jinmen and the bustling town of Xiamen directly opposite it on the Chinese mainland, a party adviser told the BBC.

"Any peaceful gesture is a good move, but what Chen has come up with is too little, too late," said Shaw Yuming of the KMT's National Policy Foundation.

"If you want to start peaceful negotiations you can't ruffle your opponent's feathers first. He has already alienated Beijing with his referendum. "

He predicted that the Chinese authorities would make little public comment on the Chen proposals "because they do not want to help him win the election".

The main difference between the two rival peace plans now on offer to Taiwan voters lies in the two parties' different underlying views on Taiwan's status, say observers.

"President Chen has called for talks between Taiwan and China as two sovereign states, whereas the Kuomintang's proposed treaty is in line with its basic 'One China' position, which holds that the two sides have overlapping sovereignty," said Professor Yang.

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