China has delivered an unusually harsh message to Taiwan's leaders, warning it will use force if the island pursues independence from the mainland.
The message was published Wednesday on the front page of the government-run newspaper, the China Daily.
The newspaper quoted Wang Zaixi, vice minister of the Chinese cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office, as saying Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's "extreme" push for independence is running the risk of triggering a war.
The remarks were the strongest yet in an ongoing war of words that has been escalating recently as Taiwan's March presidential elections draw closer.
The issue of formal independence has become a cornerstone of President Chen's reelection campaign.
China considers Taiwan a renegade province and has historically threatened to invade the island if it formally breaks away.
The Taiwanese leader has angered Beijing by proposing a new constitution by the year 2006, and supporting a referendum on independence.
None of the stronger statements have come from Chinese President Hu Jintao. His government has otherwise taken a conciliatory approach to the unification issue, discussing among other things, the establishment of direct commercial flights to the island.
Some political analysts say officials in Beijing are coming under pressure from some segments of the leadership to condemn the pro-independence moves.
Yen Chen-shen is an international relations professor at the National Chengchi University in Taipei.
"If they don't say anything strong and if Taiwan's political climate continues to move towards independence, then the hawkish sectors of China, the military, might say: 'We listened to you and we had a lot of restraint, and then this is what happened.' So, they have to say something," he said. "But, I think it doesn't come from the highest authority."
The United States does not support Taiwanese independence, but it maintains strong trade ties with the island and is Taipei's biggest weapons supplier.
Although it abides by a one-China policy, Washington has pledged to defend Taiwan against aggression from the mainland.