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China warns Taiwan against `creeping independence'

BEIJING—In measured but resolute terms, China's leader warned Taiwan on Friday against pursuing "creeping independence" and said Beijing would thwart any step by the independently ruled island toward declaring sovereignty.

President Hu Jintao spoke as legislators gathered to consider a draft law that would codify China's legal right to attack Taiwan and seek unification by military means.

"We will never tolerate Taiwan independence and never allow the Taiwan independence forces to make Taiwan secede from the motherland under any name or by any means," Hu told a preliminary session before Saturday's start of an annual 10-day meeting of the rubber-stamp National People's Congress.

Hu accused followers of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of trying "every means to undermine the status quo" and halt eventual unification of China and the island.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory. The island has governed itself since Nationalist forces fled there in 1949, when Communists took power on the mainland. Many Taiwanese view prosperous and democratic Taiwan as already sovereign, even without a formal declaration. The Chinese government has offered the island autonomy if it will come under China's direct rule.

Hu acknowledged "tremendous and complicated changes" in Taiwan in recent years, but his speech signaled an apparent end to a recent thaw in tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

A draft "anti-secession law" aimed at the island is among the top priorities as legislators gather for the annual session of the Congress, a 3,000-member body that has little power in China's one-party communist system.

The draft law hasn't been released to the public, and its details remain secret. But it's thought to give China a legal framework to use military force against Taiwan to block independence. The law also is believed to cast unification as the only way to bridge differences.

Chinese analysts assert that the draft law is designed to maintain a fragile status quo and foil quickly unfolding efforts on the island toward declared sovereignty.

"It's preventive. It's not aggressive. It's a law for peace, not a law for war," said Li Jiachuan of the Taiwan Economy Research Center, a government-linked think tank.

Li said a series of steps by the Chen government, heading toward an eventual referendum on a modified constitution, would lead the two sides to awake one day and find the island legally sovereign.

"They prefer to do it gradually, bit by bit. In the end, they accomplish the same goals," Li said. "As our American friends say, it's like taking slices off a salami."

Other analysts asserted that China's hand was forced when Japan and the United States signed a joint statement in mid-February declaring that a peaceful Taiwan Strait was among their "common strategic objectives," a move they said made Chen supporters think they had Washington and Tokyo's military support in keeping China at bay.

"The pro-independence elements in Taiwan were greatly encouraged by that statement, and this may allow them to make a misjudgment of the situation," said Xu Bodong, the director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University.

Taiwanese officials are furious over the anti-secession draft law, saying some of its provisions allow anyone promoting the island's independence to be tried for treason.

"Our legislature will have to enact another law, tit for tat," Parris Chang, the deputy secretary general of Taiwan's National Security Council, said in a telephone interview from Taipei. "There's going to be a lot of popular reaction. It's going to really sour the atmosphere of reconciliation."

Taiwanese pro-independence activists in the southern city of Kaohsiung called a mass rally for Sunday to demand a counter-measure, or "anti-annexation" bill, to block forcible unification.

In an unprecedented thaw, the two sides earlier this year allowed airlines to offer direct flights across the Taiwan Strait for three weeks over the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, the first such flights in more than five decades.

Xu, the mainland scholar, said that if Taiwan reacted to the anti-secession law with its own law, China might find itself obligated to use some sort of force.

"It's very likely for the Chinese side to take nonpeaceful means in reaction to this," Xu said. Asked to identify what kind of steps, Xu said, "I'm not in a position to elaborate."

Military tensions across the strait are high. Taiwan says China has 706 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island. China announced Friday that it's boosting military spending by 12.6 percent this year to about $30 billion.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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