In statements sure to anger the mainland Communist government of China, Taiwan’s leaders have hinted they may hold a referendum on independence to coincide with the country’s presidential elections next year, the Taipei Times reported.

“Only Taiwan’s 23 million people have the right to decide Taiwan’s future. Any change to Taiwan’s status quo must be approved by Taiwan’s people,” President Chen Shui-bian said in an address to National Sun Yat-sen University alumni Sunday.

U.S.-made M60-A3 tank, Taiwan’s best, is considered nearly obsolete and overmatched by better Chinese models.

Chen defended the island’s right to hold a referendum on its future as “a basic right that cannot be deprived by anyone,” including Washington and, presumably, Beijing.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province belonging to the mainland and has threatened to invade the island if its government formally declares independence.

The U.S. and much of the world recognizes the mainland but has never formally recognized Taiwan as an independent nation, though Washington’s policies and pledge to defend Taiwan clearly reflect the U.S. believes the island democracy is a separate entity.

“As the president, I must safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty, dignity and security and must assert that Taiwan is a sovereign state, not a part, province or state of someone else,” said Chen, according to the paper. “Direct democratic rights, including referendums, are part of our fundamental human rights. I believe those rights can never be deprived, restricted or opposed by any country, government or individual.”

Taiwan deploys sophisticated U.S.-made Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems.

His remarks came a day after a pair of Chinese-language newspapers – the United Daily News and the Apple Daily, reported that Washington warned Taipei not to hold referendums on the building of a nuclear power plant and whether to join the World Health Organization.

Those papers quoted Douglas Paal, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, as saying Washington opposed the referendums.

But Chen’s remarks were supported by Vice President Annette Lu, who agreed that referendums were a basic right.

She also said she believed the U.S. position was misrepresented in the reports.

“I believe a country with high democratic standards like the U.S. would not oppose,” she said, according to the Times.

After being inaugurated into office in May 2000, Chen announced a policy of “five no’s,” which included a promise not to declare independence from China. But that came on the condition that China would not use force against Taiwan, a promise China has yet to make.

“Please don’t forget that there is still such a precondition,” Lu said. “If China infringes on such a precondition, the 23 million people of Taiwan could exercise their basic right to hold a referendum.”

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