President Chen Shui-bian (searchon Wednesday defended his plan to hold a referendum on whether to formally request that China to remove hundreds of missiles aimed at the island -- a vote that has drawn sharp U.S. criticism.

Chen described the March 20 vote as a way to avoid conflict with China.

"A defensive referendum is for avoiding war and to help keep the Taiwanese people free of fear," he said. "It is also for preserving the status quo."

Chen's comments came after President Bush met in Washington on Tuesday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (searchat his side and sent a strong warning not to take any action toward independence or cause dangerous new tensions with Beijing.

"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said.

Taiwan -- just 100 miles off the mainland's coast -- has had loose ties with China throughout Chinese history. The island was a Japanese colony from 1895 to the end of World War II (search), and the Communist government has never ruled the island since rising to power in 1949.

But Beijing considers Taiwan to be a piece of China that should never be allowed to break away permanently. Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned they're ready to go to war if the Taiwanese reject eventual unification.

Chen made his latest remarks while meeting with Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican and a longtime supporter of Taiwan.

The Taiwanese president emphasized that he didn't plan to hold a vote on the thorny independence-unification issue.

"Taiwan is a sovereign country and as Taiwan's president, my duty is to protect the country's sovereignty, security and respect," Chen said.