Raising the stakes in an already tense situation, China threatened in remarks published Wednesday that "the use of force may become unavoidable" if Taiwan pursues independence -- the mainland's strongest statement in years against its archrival.
But Wang Zaixi (search), a top mainland official who deals with the Taiwan issue, also said China felt close to the Taiwanese people and was "not willing to meet at the battleground."
Wang, vice-minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council (search), said curbing Taiwan's efforts toward independence is the main goal of the mainland, which will go to war if necessary.
"If the Taiwan authorities collude with all ... forces to openly engage in pro-independence activities and challenge the mainland and the one-China principle, the use of force may become unavoidable," Wang was quoted as saying in the China Daily.
Separatists were "set to pay a high cost if they think we will not use force," Wang said. "Taiwan independence means war."
The Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing had no immediate comment on Wednesday.
Beijing has long threatened the use of force against Taiwan if it formally declares independence, but rarely so dramatically. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing insists that Taiwan belongs to China and must accept eventual unification.
The article in China Daily, a state-controlled, English-language newspaper with a wide foreign audience, ran under a bold headline: "Independence stance may trigger war."
Wang's remarks came as Taiwan prepares to elect a new leader next March. Recent public polls show that President Chen Shui-bian (search) has gained popularity with voters since he came up with plans for a new constitution last month. He has also introduced a law referendums that could lead to citizens voting on Taiwan's independence.
The introduction of a new constitution and referendums are "extremely dangerous behaviors," Wang was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. He was speaking at a seminar on cross-straits relations.
"That Chen is using ... presidential running tools to get himself re-elected and to push our Taiwanese compatriots to the brink of conflict with the motherland is immoral and is behavior that will destroy peace in the Straits of Taiwan," Wang said.
"The people of Taiwan are our brothers and sisters," he said. "We are not willing to meet at the battleground."
On Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the Bush administration would deploy sufficient force in the Asia-Pacific area to lower tensions between China and Taiwan.
"We have good competent forces there," Armitage said as he also offered assurances that the Bush administration would provide Taiwan with "sufficient defense articles for her self-defense."
Armitage told reporters that "we have full faith that the question of Taiwan will be resolved peacefully."
When Chen ran for president in Taiwan in 2000, he was the candidate Beijing disliked most because his opposition party had called for independence for Taiwan. Then-Premier Zhu Rongji and state-run media warned Taiwan voters that a Chen victory could lead to war.
"The people of Taiwan are standing at a very critical historical juncture, so let me give advice to all the people of Taiwan: Do not act just on impulse," Zhu said during a news conference. "Otherwise you will regret it very much and it will be too late to repent."
Last month, Beijing condemned Taiwan's leaders for their push for independence but stopped short of threatening war.
"The separatist activities by Taiwan independence elements directly endangers the basic interests of Taiwan compatriots, and it is a disaster for Taiwan," an unidentified spokesman from the Taiwan Affairs office was quoted as saying by Xinhua. "Activities like this cannot be tolerated by the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation."