China on Wednesday denounced Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan president, as a “troublemaker and saboteur” for suggesting that the island’s long-neglected roadmap for reunification might be scrapped.

The criticism from Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office highlighted tensions raised by Mr Chen’s announcement last month that it might be time to scrap the 15-year-old guidelines and the moribund National Unification Council that is supposed to implement them.

Mr Chen’s remarks have also caused concern in Washington, the final arbiter of Taiwan’s security, which last week issued a pointed reminder that it opposed “unilateral change to the status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.

The debate over the guidelines and council, which were created in 1991 at a time when Taiwan’s government was still firmly committed to reunification with the mainland, reflect the semantic complexities and sensitivities of cross-Strait ties.

The guidelines - which have never been embraced by China - call for steps toward an eventual reunion “in the long term” under the hard-to-achieve “consensus of democracy, freedom and equal prosperity”.

The National Unification Council has had little impact on Taiwan’s policy toward China, has not even convened this decade and has had its annual budget cut to a derisory T$1,000.

However, Mr Chen’s suggestion that it be scrapped has symbolic significance beyond its substantive import.

On his accession, the president - a strong advocate of Taiwan’s separate identity - had promised to retain both council and guidelines unless China used force against the island.

His supporters now argue that China’s military build-up nullifies such vows - a stance fuelling mainland convictions that Mr Chen is determined to move toward formal independence before he steps down in 2008.

“This again shows that he is the troublemaker and saboteur of relations between the two sides and of Asian-Pacific peace and stability,” Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Li Weiyi said on Wednesday.

With some Taipei officials already playing down Mr Chen’s remarks and the president already weakened by growing unpopularity, analysts say he is unlikely to act quickly against the council.

“He won’t be able to change the status quo, US pressure is too strong,” says George Tsai, an expert on cross-Strait relations at Taipei’s National Chengchi University.

“His purpose is not to resolve the issue but to raise it, increasing tensions and provoking a strong Chinese and US response,” Mr Tsai said.

By staking out a strong position against China, Mr Chen may be seeking to bolster his popularity among pro-independence voters after months of struggling to respond effectively to Beijing’s recent success in courting Taiwanese opposition groups and business leaders.

His administration has also failed to win parliamentary approval for a package of US weapons that it says are essential for Taiwan’s defence.

However, Mr Tsai said sparking cross-Strait tensions would backfire against both Taiwan and Mr Chen’s beleaguered Democratic Progressive Party.

“Maybe it’s good for him, but it’s not good for Taiwan and its not good for the DPP,” he said.

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