TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian on Friday appeared set to fulfill his pledge to conduct a highly charged referendum on the island's relations with mainland China when he released the text of two questions he said would be "put to the people of Taiwan" in March.
Speaking in a taped, nationally televised address, Chen announced that voters would be asked whether they agreed that the government should purchase advanced anti-missile systems if Beijing refused to dismantle nearly 500 ballistic missiles said to be aimed at Taiwan from positions barely 100 miles away along the coast of China's Fujian province. The other question is whether the Taiwanese government should try to negotiate a "peace and stability framework" for relations with the mainland.
Chen's decision to push ahead with the March 20 vote follows threats from Beijing and uncharacteristic pressure from Taiwan's lone significant ally -- the United States.
Amid concerns the referendum might be used to take a step toward independence, President Bush publicly rebuked Chen last month, declaring that he would oppose any move by the Taiwanese leader that would endanger a decades-old status quo. That delicate arrangement has kept a shaky peace by allowing the island to operate much as if it were independent, yet left unchallenged the mainland's claim that Taiwan is part of China.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the administration neither opposed nor endorsed the referendum, the wording of which had been toned down.
"We certainly welcome any statements that confirm Taiwan's commitment to the status quo in the years ahead," McClellan said, according to Associated Press.
Chen has been accused of launching the referendum as a ploy to enhance his popularity before Taiwan's presidential election, also scheduled for March 20. His Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, has accused him of playing with the island's security to win votes.
Earlier this month, a poll showed the two candidates even, with each favored by 35% of those questioned, but a survey released Friday showed Chen trailing by seven percentage points, with nearly 23% undecided.
During a campaign rally Friday in the eastern city of Taitung, Lien questioned the legality of the referendum, claiming that the conditions for it did not exist. Under the referendum law, passed in November, a vote on national defense issues can be held only if the island faces immediate and obvious danger.
Known for wanting greater political distance from the mainland, Chen tends to pick up support when Beijing's rhetoric turns aggressive. On Friday, however, Chen claimed that Beijing's missile deployment -- which has been going on for several years -- was an attempt to alter the status quo "by undemocratic, non-peaceful means."
"In order to prevent China from using force against Taiwan and therefore unilaterally changing the status quo, I have proposed a referendum for peace to be held on March 20th," Chen told his people.
Beijing has considered Taiwan a breakaway province since Communist forces drove the Nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek there in the late 1940s. This week there had been speculation that pressure from Washington was so intense that Chen might withdraw the idea, but Friday's speech seemed to make the vote a certainty.
Special correspondent Tsai reported from Taipei and staff writer Marshall from Hong Kong.