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Taiwan's leader kills council on reunification with China

BEIJING—Tossing a thunderbolt across the Taiwan Strait, the president of Taiwan on Monday scrapped a dormant advisory body on unifying the island with China in defiance of warnings from Beijing and Washington not to stir up trouble.

The move, while largely symbolic, is certain to rile China and test the Bush administration's ability to keep a snug rein on the pro-independence Taiwan leader.

President Chen Shui-bian said he had decided to terminate the National Unification Council, an inactive policymaking body, and scrap 15-year-old guidelines on how to achieve eventual reunification. The actions are to take effect Tuesday.

"The National Unification Council will cease functioning and the budget no longer be appropriated," Chen said after an hour-long meeting of Taiwan's top security agency, the National Security Council.

Chen said the move "does not involve changing the status quo, but it is based on the democratic principle of sovereignty resting on the people."

Chen faces sagging popularity after a blistering defeat for his Democratic Progressive Party in December's local elections. Monday's action signaled that he plans to mobilize his pro-independence followers by stirring up tensions with China, even at the cost of antagonizing the United States, Taiwan's longtime military protector.

Taiwan is a self-governing island off the mainland's shore. China says Taiwan is a renegade province, and it threatens to use military force to bring about reunification.

Washington doesn't support independence for Taiwan, and it has called on Beijing and Taipei to respect a fragile status quo across the strait. China maintains some 700 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and it passed a law last year enshrining its right to attack.

Chen said the move to suspend the council was prompted by "China's persistent military threat and its attempts to use nonpeaceful means to unilaterally change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait."

Monday's action marked a disavowal by Chen of one of five pledges that he made when he came to office in May 2000. The pledges, which came to be known as the "five noes," were promises not to declare Taiwan's independence, change the island's name, hold a referendum on independence, alter the unification council or guidelines and incorporate the idea of "two states" into Taiwan's Constitution.

Earlier on Monday, the state-run Xinhua News Agency in China carried a statement from an unidentified senior Chinese official warning that Chen's "secessionist activities ... will inevitably result in a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait and destroy peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."

Former President Lee Teng-hui established the National Unification Council in 1990, and it held 14 meetings. It became dormant once Chen was elected, and its annual budget was reportedly only $22,000.

The 1991 guidelines, which set a condition of unifying with China only once the mainland had moved from communism to democracy, were adopted as the blueprint for cross-strait policy.

Chen said in a speech Jan. 29 that he was considering abolishing the council and applying for U.N. membership for Taiwan. The remarks drew a rebuff from Washington, which publicly warned Taiwan not to rock the boat with China.

The Taiwan Relations Act, which passed after Washington established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, declares that the United States wants the island's future settled peacefully. Washington also agreed to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Chen Shui-bian

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