Taiwan's president says China and Taiwan are two countries, and calls for a referendum to decide the island's relationship with the mainland. President Chen Shui-bian's bold statement is likely to draw a tough response from China.

President Chen's remarks over Taiwan's future seem certain to infuriate the leadership in Beijing. He was speaking to Taiwanese living in Japan via a video-conference, and used the Taiwanese language rather than standard Chinese.

The president declareed that Taiwan is not a province of another government. He says "Taiwan and China, on the opposite side, are each a country."

Although the island has been governed separately since Nationalist forces fled there at the end of China's civil war in 1949, Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Just a few days ago, China's defense minister said the mainland does not rule out using force to take control of the island, if Taipei moves toward independence.

When President Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, made similar remarks about Taiwan's status in 1999, Beijing reacted sharply. Relations between Taiwan and China went into a dive, from which they have not yet recovered.

President Chen's political party has advocated independence in the past, but he backed away from the issue when running for president two years ago.

With an election coming in two years, President Chen now appears to be ending that policy. Mr. Chen also endorses legislation calling for a referendum to decide Taiwan's future. He called a referendum a "basic human right." However, the president does not specify when a referendum should be held.

Members of Taiwan's two largest opposition parties denounced President Chen's remarks. The chairman of the Kuomintang, Lien Chan, was quoted by Taiwan's ETTV news as accusing President Chen of heading toward independence and contradicting his earlier pledges.

A legislator of the People's First Party said the party opposes independence and would boycott legislation for a referendum.

Any move toward a referendum would leave Washington in a delicate position. While Washington recognizes what Beijing calls "the one-China policy," it has long called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. The United States sells Taiwan weapons to deter any use of military force by China.