China slams independence talk from Taiwan

 
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TAIPEI, Mar 5 (Reuters) China slammed Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's talk of independence today, saying anyone who wants the island to split from China would be a ''criminal in history''.

Chen yesterday said the island should pursue independence and change its official title, the ''Republic of China'', a move that is also certain to worry key ally the United States.

''Don't listen to local leaders,'' Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told Taiwan reporters in Beijing, a reference to China's view that Taiwan is a mere province. ''Whoever wants to split away will become a criminal in history.'' Chen, who made his remarks at a formal dinner late yesterday, also re-stated his goal of enacting a new constitution.

It was the latest step in a string of presidential office moves to forge a separate identity from China, which has claimed the island as its own since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and has threatened war if it declares formal independence.

''Taiwan must be independent,'' he said. ''Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country outside of the People's Republic of China, and to pursue independence is the common and long-held ideal of the Taiwan people.'' The speech was a key factor depressing Taiwan markets today. The main TAIEX index was down nearly 3.0 per cent on the day and the Taiwan dollar also weakened to 32.894 against the dollar by late morning local time.

WEN OFFERS TALKS Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered today to conditionally resume talks with Taiwan.

''We will continue under the basis of the 'one China' principle ... to seek early resumption of cross-Strait dialogue and negotiations,'' Wen told the opening of the annual session of parliament. ''(We) will unite the broad masses of Taiwan compatriots to resolutely oppose Taiwan's de jure independence and any form of splittist activities.'' Taiwan has been separately ruled since 1949, when the former Nationalist government retreated to the island. Beijing says reunification with Taiwan is a supreme national goal and rejects any possibility of full independence for the island.

Chen has over the past few years increasingly sought an independent identity for the island by doing away with symbolic connections to the mainland such as removing ''China'' from the name of several state-run firms.

''Seeking independence is not a dangerous step backward,'' he said.

However, Chen has stopped short of formally declaring independence, a move that would cross the United States, which fears involvement in any potential cross-strait clash.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, recognising ''one China'', but is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.

Chang Guixiang, a delegate from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the parliament session in Beijing, made the PLA's position clear.

''As the People's Liberation Army, we firmly oppose Taiwan independence and will safeguard the unity of the People's Republic of China,'' he said.

REUTERS AKJ RN1039

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