updated 5/20/2004 12:44:23 AM ET 2004-05-20T04:44:23

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian promised at his inauguration Thursday to focus on improving ties with rival China in his second term, but also cautioned that Taiwan must bolster its defense against the mainland’s threats.

“We love peace but we are also concerned about national security,” Chen said. “Facing the other side’s military buildup, we have to reinforce our national defenses.”

Chen was narrowly re-elected on March 20 after campaigning on a China-bashing platform and claiming that only he could best protect Taiwan from Beijing’s plans to swallow up the tiny island, just 100 miles off the coast.

The fiery rhetoric strained already tense relations with China, which claims that self-ruled Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. A civil war split the two sides in 1949.

Chen tried to use Thursday’s speech to smooth over relations with China. He also wanted to reassure the island’s most important friend, the United States, that he wasn’t a reckless leader bent on triggering a devastating war.

Beijing didn’t immediately comment on the address.

A steady drizzle fell as Chen spoke to an audience of about 200,000. Most wore disposable yellow plastic rain ponchos to protect against the downpour that soaked the president’s shoulders.

Before the speech, the crowd enjoyed performances by gun-twirling soldiers in shiny chrome helmets and cymbal-clanging child dancers in baggy white pants.

New thinking
Chen urged Chinese leaders to use new thinking to solve the long-standing disputes between the two sides.

The president also said he would honor commitments made in his inaugural speech four years ago when he pledged not to seek independence if China didn’t attack.

But he also repeated his pledge to rewrite Taiwan’s constitution before finishing his four-year term. He also said that the final document should be approved by a referendum.

“This is my historical responsibility and my promise to the people,” he said.

Chen had infuriated Beijing by proposing to rewrite the constitution. Chinese leaders fear he would use the new document to formalize the island’s independent status.

China’s Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily and other state-run media carried a commentary Thursday that said, “The 1.3 billion Chinese people will never allow Chen Shui-bian to gamble on the mainland’s tolerance and seek Taiwan independence.”

The piece warned, “There’s a limit to the tolerance of the mainland.”

But Chen said Thursday that the constitutional changes wouldn’t touch on sovereignty issues that worry Beijing. The revisions would simply restructure the government to make it more efficient, he said.

“We don’t have a majority consensus on unification or independence or national sovereignty and territory, so the issues will not be in the scope of the revisions,” he said.

The president also called for a new “framework of peace, stability and interaction” with China that would assure that Beijing wouldn’t unilaterally change Taiwan’s political status.

Economic ties
Chen said that under the framework, Taiwan could expand already-booming commerce between the two sides. He also said Taiwan could lift a five-decade ban on direct flights and shipping to the mainland.

Chen’s election victory — by a razor-thin margin of 0.2 percent — came one day after a shooting grazed his stomach and hit his runningmate, Vice President Annette Lu, in the knee during a campaign parade. No suspects have been named, and opposition candidate Lien Chan has said he won’t accept the vote’s results until the incident has been thoroughly investigated.

The vote dispute sparked violent street protests, and Lien demanded a recount, which has already begun and could take several more weeks. Officials have not said who is leading the retally.

As the inauguration ceremony began, hundreds of opposition supporters gathered for a protest at a park in the eastern part of the capital, Taipei. Some of them scuffled with police near the Presidential Office as they released huge black balloons with “No truth, no president” written on them.

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