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Taiwan President Talks Independence

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has again raised the controversial topic of independence - this time as China's parliament opened its annual sessions in Beijing. VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Hong Kong, Mr. Chen's comments drew immediate and expected condemnation from Beijing.

President Chen told a Taiwan pro-independence group, Formosan Association for Public Affairs, Sunday evening that the island, in his words, "should be independent".

"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," he said.

Taiwan has been governed separately from Communist China since the 1949 civil war ended, but it has never declared outright independence. Mr. Chen's party has repeatedly raised the proposition, adding to existing tensions with Beijing.

China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has threatened military force if necessary to achieve eventual reunification.

This position was again repeated in Beijing Monday, when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao addressed the opening of the National People's Congress.

In comments aimed at President Chen and his pro-independence party, Mr. Wen repeated China's opposition to independence activities on the island.

But Mr. Wen also promised China would promote direct transport and communications links across the Taiwan Strait. He offered to resume talks with Taiwan but stressed that the talks would be based on the long-held principle that there is only one China.

Mr. Chen's term ends next year and his party is expected to face a serious leadership challenge from former popular Taipei mayor, Ma Ying-jeou. Ma and the opposition Kuomintang party are seen as more conciliatory toward Beijing on the issue of eventual reunification.

Despite billions of dollars of Taiwanese direct investment in China, China has hundreds of missiles aimed at Taiwan and has just announced an 18 percent increase in defense spending.

The United States has cautioned both sides to keep the status quo and pursue peaceful dialogue. Washington has also cautioned Taiwan not to ratchet up tension with independence rhetoric, but does provide the island with defensive weapons in case of an attack.