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Chen pulls back from brink

China warns against independence steps

Chen takes the formal oath of office at the presidential palace Thursday.
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Taiwan's leader finds himself at odds with Beijing. CNN's Mike Chinoy explains
Beijing vows to quash any future move for independence. CNN's Jaime Florcruz reports
Taiwan election a headache for China
United States
Shui-bian Chen

(CNN) -- Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has pulled back from the brink of confronting China, explicitly ruling out any immediate steps towards independence in his constitutional reform measures.

But his move to defuse tensions with the mainland may not go far enough for the leadership in Beijing, observers warn.

Delivering his inauguration speech in pouring rain outside the presidential palace Thursday, Chen said he aimed to deliver a new constitution by the end of his second term in 2008.

He said issues of national sovereignty and unification would be specifically excluded from this process because a consensus was yet to be reached.

China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland, threatened Chen earlier this week that any "dangerous lurch towards independence" would be crushed "at any cost".

While Chen's speech was designed to mollify Beijing, China analyst Willy Lam noted there was no mention in it of the "one China" principle, something Beijing insists Taiwan acknowledge.

CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz said Chen's remarks were placatory in tone, but would be seen in Beijing as only of "small consolation".

Chen said the situation in the Taiwan Strait remained a focus of international attention, and it was imperative for Taiwan to strengthen its defenses.

But he also called for a fresh approach on cross-Strait issues, saying the two sides shared a cultural heritage and he wanted to stabilize relations with China.

Chen noted that while Taiwan was the world's 15th largest trading nation, it had taken 12 years for it to become the 144th member of the World Trade Organization, and it was still excluded from membership of the World Health Organization.

Chen said he wanted to unify the people of Taiwan and his narrow victory in the March presidential election should not become a wedge. He said a pre-eminent mission was to rebuild the bridge of trust between the government and opposition parties.

Chen, who was shot and wounded during campaigning for the presidential election he won narrowly in March, was formally sworn in at 9 a.m. Thursday local time (1 a.m. GMT) in a rain-lashed ceremony in the capital, Taipei.

His Vice-President, Annette Lu, was also sworn in by Grand Justice Wong Yueh-sheng.

The March election result, which Chen won by a margin of just 30,000 votes, from 13 million cast, remains in dispute.

A recount sought by Chen's opponent Lien Chan has been completed, but the High Court is not expected to release results for some weeks. About 40,000 votes are thought to be in dispute.

CNN's Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy, reporting from Taipei, said Chen was taking office in a "poisonous political atmosphere" because of the election dispute.

He said the electorate remained "deeply divided" over Chen's mandate.

Separate course

Soldiers in Taiwan practise for the inauguration cermony.

Taiwan took a separate course after the 1949 civil war that brought the Communist Party to power in China, becoming a refuge for the fleeing Nationalist troops and their families.

Despite growing commercial ties across the Taiwan Strait -- more than 1 million people from Taiwan now live and work on the mainland and Taiwanese investment runs into billions of dollars -- China's leadership has vowed to make whatever sacrifice is necessary.

On the Taipei stock market Thursday, the benchmark Taiex index is down about 1.2 percent after Chen's speech.

Chen has showed no signs of being willing to accept unification with China.

He led the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to power in 2000, ousting the Nationalist Party, which ruled the island for five decades and opposes Taiwan independence.

Most polls say the majority of Taiwanese favor avoiding immediate unification while holding off on drastic moves toward a permanent split that might provoke China.

But Beijing suspects Chen might use a new constitution to enshrine claims that Taiwan has become an independent nation. (China may mandate unity)

Many China watchers disagree about whether China would act on long-standing threats to attack Taiwan, the Associated Press reports.

But most agree that if that happened, the United States would likely get dragged in. (Full story)

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