BEIJING - Chinese military officers said yesterday that Taiwan's leadership had pushed the island toward the "abyss of war" with its independence drive, making clear that China would consider a popular vote on Taiwan's political status as cause for war.
In lengthy interviews carried prominently by the official New China News Agency and other news outlets, the military officials also said that China would prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence even if that meant pushing the mainland economy into a recession or destroying China's plans to be host to the 2008 Olympics.
Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian "has reached the mainland's bottom line on the Taiwan question," said Luo Yuan, a senior colonel with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences. "If they refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referenda as an excuse to seek Taiwan independence, they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war."
Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian was quoted as saying that the mainland would attack without hesitation if Taiwan sought a formal split. "Taiwan independence means war," Peng said. "This is the word of 1.3 billion people, and we will keep our word."
The comments were the most strident in a barrage of explicit threats directed toward Taiwan in recent weeks by mainland leaders, and they might indicate a decisive shift in Beijing's approach to managing Taiwan affairs.
For the past several years, China has sought to play down what it considers political provocations by Chen. Beijing has courted Taiwanese businessmen and promoted economic integration between the two adversaries, which have been politically divided since the Communists won a civil war in 1949. China has hoped to create a broader popular constituency in Taiwan that favors eventual reunification.
But mainland leaders, who regard Taiwan as a renegade province, seem alarmed that softer diplomacy toward Taiwan, and China's preoccupation with its extensive leadership transition, might have sent the wrong signals. They have resumed making bellicose threats whenever they see Chen edge toward declaring independence, the kind of aggressive posturing that some American officials fear could spiral into conflict.
At issue is whether Taiwan will hold some kind of referendum, possibly in tandem with its presidential election in March, that would broach the delicate subject of sovereignty.
The issue appeared to be defused last week, when Taiwan's Parliament, controlled by the main opposition party, stepped back from a direct confrontation with Beijing. The legislature passed a bill that would permit referendums on constitutional and sovereignty issues, but only under narrow circumstances. The law denies the president the authority to call a referendum on such issues, except in matters of national defense.
But Chen said over the weekend that he saw the law as giving him leeway to organize a referendum because doing so "would protect our country's sovereignty."
He did not elaborate, but Chen has argued in the past that Taiwan must take active steps to protect its de facto independence against encroachment from the mainland.
Peng listed the Olympics, loss of foreign investment, deterioration in foreign relations, economic slowdown or recession and "necessary" casualties by the army as costs China would willingly bear to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.