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China applauds Bush stance against Taiwan independence

BEIJING -- China issued a rare "thank you" to an American president yesterday when it applauded President Bush's strongest statement yet opposing any moves by Taiwan toward independence.

The statement from China's Foreign Ministry, calling Taiwan "the most important and sensitive [issue] in US-China relations," underscored a continuing improvement in relations between the countries and followed this week's visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to the United States, which Beijing called "a complete success."

"We appreciate President Bush's statement," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

The highlight of Wen's four-day trip was his presence in the Oval Office on Tuesday, when Bush used the sharpest language of any American president in years to rebuke Taiwan.

Bush said the United States opposes "any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo." He added: "The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Wen, who departed for Canada on Wednesday, had more to show for his US visit than the last Chinese premier to visit Washington, Zhu Rongji in 1999. Zhu, whose goal was to advance China's accession to the World Trade Organization, left President Clinton's White House empty-handed and returned home to accusations that he was a "traitor" to the Chinese people.

After a chilly start in the early months of the Bush administration, US-China ties have been strengthening since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States as China has sought to become a US partner in the fight against terrorism and has backed the American goal of establishing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Bush, in his remarks Tuesday, was responding to recent moves by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to call a "defensive" referendum asking voters whether they want China to withdraw the hundreds of missiles it has deployed within striking distance of Taiwan.

Western analysts have said Chen's move was based on a desire to heighten tensions between Taiwan and China in the run-up to Taiwan's presidential election on March 20. In 2000, Chen benefited from increased tension with China and became the first opposition candidate to win Taiwan's presidency.

China has accused Chen of using the referendum as a ploy to push Taiwan a step closer to formal independence from China. Beijing has threatened to attack the island, which it considers part of China, if it declares independence.

"The so-called referendum is quite deceptive and dangerous," Liu said. "Its aim is to separate Taiwan from the mainland. China will never tolerate such activity."

In Taiwan, Chen said he believed that Washington eventually would support the referendum, a widely held belief making the rounds on the island. "I believe America is a democratic country," he said in an interview broadcast on CNN, according to a presidential office statement. "It will absolutely support and encourage the public opinion of Taiwan's 23 million people and their pursuit of deeper democracy and peace."

Earlier yesterday, Chen argued that the referendum was in line with America's democratic values, which should allow voters to express opinions about a threat. He said all people in the world have the "right to be free from terror."

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