Taiwan President Says UN Referendum Not About Independence

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian used a meeting with members of the foreign media in Taipei to say a referendum on the island's United Nations membership is about the will of its residents. Jacques van Wersch reports from Taipei.

President Chen says more than more than 1.8 million signatures have been collected for the referendum on joining the United Nations. In a meeting with foreign journalists Monday, he said by the end of this month, the target of two million signatures will be collected.

The referendum will ask voters if they want to join the U.N. using the name "Taiwan" instead of "Republic of China," the island's formal name. Until 1971, the island was a U.N. member under that name. It was expelled when other members voted to grant the seat to Beijing government in mainland China.

Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory and says it will use force to reunify if necessary, objects to the referendum, calling it a step toward independence. The United States also objects, saying neither side should make unilateral moves to change the situation.

Mr. Chen says the referendum is not about independence, it is about the will of Taiwan's people.

"We think that China can have objections," he said. "And the United States and Japan don't necessarily have to support it; they may even oppose it. None of this really matters. What really matters is whether Taiwan's 23 million people have thought about and are ready for Taiwan to be a sovereign country."

Mr. Chen says he expects the referendum to be approved by a majority of voters, and he expects no negative consequences.

The referendum will be held at the same time as next year's presidential election. Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely that the U.N. will grant Taiwan membership in the next few years; past applications have been rejected.

Mr. Chen said he delayed seeking a referendum until late in his term because his government had to move gradually to build a consensus. He pointed out that Taiwan's system did not allow for a referendum until four years ago, and that holding a vote then might have been too provocative.

Mr. Chen went on to reject speculation that Taiwan might use new weapons rashly. Taiwan's military recently has acquired cruise missiles that could hit China. The president stressed they would never be used against civilian targets and that Washington would be consulted.

"For any use, we must first communicate with the United States ahead of time and ask their opinion before actually using them," said Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen is constitutionally limited to two terms as president. He leaves office next May. He says perhaps his greatest legacy will have been helping to raise the percentage of Taiwan residents who identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese from just over 30 percent in 2000 to the current 70 percent.