BEIJING — China offered two pandas to Taiwan on Friday as a token of peace, but in the same breath accused President Chen Shui-bian of ratcheting up tensions with his support of formal independence for the self-ruled island.
Chen signalled a tougher stance towards China in his New Year speech, warning his people of investment risks on the mainland and what he saw as the growing military threat from the island's political foe.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has pledged to bring it back into the fold, by force if necessary.
Beijing's policymaking Taiwan Affairs Office said on Friday that it had taken note of Chen's latest comments, and warned him that bad consequences would follow for anyone who tried to interfere in cross-Strait peace efforts.
“Anyone who makes an enemy of his own people and compatriots, will certainly reap a bitter harvest,” spokesman Li Weiyi told a news conference, repeating the stock line that China would not tolerate an independent Taiwan.
Chen, who advocates a national identity for Taiwan distinct from that of China, reiterated his aim of giving Taiwan a new constitution before the end of his second, and final, term in 2008. He stressed that the island's future would be decided by its 23 million people alone.
Li said such actions were unacceptable to Beijing.
“The Taiwan authority leader has again brought up a timetable for constitutional reform and continues to preach Taiwan independence splittist talk … which shows the danger is increasing,” he said.
Chen also said the island could hold a referendum on the new constitution by 2007 if conditions were ripe. Beijing sees Chen's constitutional re-engineering project as a provocative step towards formal statehood.
Taiwan responded on Friday by saying that China had misunderstood Chen's comments and that the island was not seeking formal independence.
“Our constitutional re-engineering and de jure independence are two separate issues. We are not pursuing de jure independence,” Taiwan's top China policymaker, Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Joseph Wu, said in Taipei.
Beijing and Taipei have been diplomatic and military rivals since their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
But current cross-Strait tensions have not stopped China from going ahead with a plan to offer two pandas to Taiwan.
After weeks of whittling down a selection of the threatened creatures, two were chosen, a male and a female, whose current names mean “Little Darling” and “Ditzy Girl”.
They will receive new names better suited to their role as cross-Strait emissaries, thanks to a televised vote from a shortlist at the end of January.
“We hope the couple can meet the Taiwan compatriots as soon as possible and the Taiwan authorities can follow the wishes of the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, providing active cooperation on this issue,” said Dai Xiaofeng, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office exchange bureau.
Whether or not the pandas ever reach Taiwan is ultimately up to President Chen.
China has offered pandas to Taiwan several times in the past, but the island has turned them down, in part because it says its climate is unsuitable.
Taiwan's Wu said the Council of Agriculture would decide whether the pandas can come after consulting environmental groups. He said a decision was expected in March, but criticised China for manipulating the press surrounding the offer.
“The government has not had any discussions about whether to accept the offer of two pandas. But mainland China has continued to use the media to promote its offer and make it look like they must give us the pandas and we must accept them,” Wu said.
The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered species and is found only in China. An estimated 1,000 live in the southwestern province of Sichuan and in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in the northwest.
Additional reporting by Alice Hung in Taipei