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Ties in doubt as US thwarts Taiwan president's trip

By Staff
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TAIPEI, May 3 (Reuters) Taiwan's independence-leaning president looked set to delay an overseas trip today after Washington dragged its feet on stopovers in the United States.

The apparent snub was a blow for Chen Shui-bian, whose transit plan China had warned Washington not to approve. It raised questions about the self-ruled island's ties with its most important ally and chief arms supplier.

Chen had hoped to stop in New York on his way to Paraguay and Costa Rica to score diplomatic points after Chinese President Hu Jintao's U.S. trip last month, media reports said.

But Taiwan officials said they could not finalise the trip, which had been due to begin later on Wednesday, due to China's strenuous efforts to push the island into diplomatic isolation.

''The timing of President Chen's visit is bad. It comes too close to Hu Jintao's visit to the United States,'' said Hsu Yung-ming, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica.

''It's a diplomatic setback for Chen Shui-bian,'' said Hsu, who advises the government on foreign policy.

Washington usually allows Taiwan leaders to enter the United States in transit, but refuses official visits so as not to offend China, which claims sovereignty over the island.

Taiwan newspapers quoted sources as saying Washington would agree to let Chen transit in Hawaii when he heads to Central and South America and then stop in Alaska on his way back.

Chen would not be allowed to stay overnight as he did in the past, making it the worst treatment a Taiwan leader has received during a transit stop in 12 years, the papers said.

China -- which says Taiwan must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary -- views any country that plays host to Chen as encouraging his vision of a separate Taiwanese identity.

Only 26 states -- mostly small, poor countries -- recognise Taipei instead of Beijing.

The pro-independence Liberty Times said the decision had been taken by President George W. Bush, who needs China's support over the Iran nuclear crisis at the United Nations.

''The U.S. government hopes Taiwan understands the decision is not aimed at punishing Taiwan and will not become a formula in the future,'' the newspaper quoted sources as saying.

Taiwan officials declined to comment on the report.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang warned Washington last week against Chen's possible transit in New York and reminded Washington to honour its commitment to uphold the ''one China'' principle.

Chen was allowed to stop in New York to receive a human rights award in 2003, a move hailed as a breakthrough. Chen has said he hopes to make a symbolically charged visit to the U.S. capital during his second term, which ends in 2008.

Chen made surprise stopovers in the United Arab Emirates and Fiji during visits to the island's diplomatic allies last year.

Reuters CH DB1249

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