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Taiwan wants U.S. to act as intermediary

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BEIJING — President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan is pressing the Bush administration to approve his plans to change the island's constitution, casting the United States as an intermediary in the most delicate issue dividing China and Taiwan, Taiwanese officials said Tuesday.

While Bush administration officials say they do not want to get deeply involved in brokering relations between China and Taiwan, the overture shows how instrumental U.S. mediation has become in preventing tense relations across the Taiwan Strait from deteriorating into armed conflict.

Chen sent Chiou I-Jen, the secretary-general of the presidential office, to Washington this week to outline changes he plans to make to the Constitution during his second term in office, the officials said. If Taiwan gets the blessing it seeks, Chen may make constitutional change a centerpiece of his inaugural address on May 20, they said.

The effort puts the Bush administration in a delicate position. It is focused on pacifying Iraq and fighting terrorism, and is relying on Chinese help to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis. U.S. officials have been pressuring Chen to refrain from provoking China since he narrowly won re-election in March.

Yet Taiwan's supporters in Congress and some neoconservative thinkers in Washington are also urging the administration to offer greater support to the island, which they view as a democracy under threat from China's Communist Party-controlled military.

In the shrouds of doctrine that set the terms of the relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan, China views changing Taiwan's Constitution, drafted when Taiwan's Nationalist Party governed mainland China before 1949, as a cover for formalizing Taiwan's independence. China says it will fight to prevent that from happening.

Chen hopes to persuade the United States that his proposal for changing the constitution will focus on the legal framework of Taiwan's central government and its legislature, which he argues must be overhauled because it is irrelevant and ineffective in present-day Taiwan.