BEIJING -- China's parliament enacted a law Monday authorizing force to stop rival Taiwan from pursuing formal independence, sparking outrage on the self-governing island and warnings that the measure would fuel regional tensions.
The law does not specify what might trigger an attack and does not add new threats or conditions. Instead, it codifies the measures for authorizing Chinese military action.
The ceremonial National People's Congress passed the law despite U.S. appeals for restraint. It came a day after President Hu Jintao called on China's military to be ready for war and followed a 12.6 percent increase in the country's defense budget for 2005.
The Bush administration said the new law was an "unfortunate" development that could increase tensions in the region.
"It does not serve the purpose of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. We believe it runs counter to recent progress in cross-Strait relations," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday.
Premier Wen Jiabao said the mainland still wants to unite peacefully with the island and does not want to disrupt the status quo.
"It is not targeted at the people of Taiwan, nor is it a war bill," Wen said at a news conference. But he also warned outsiders not to get involved: "We do not wish to see foreign interference."
A Taiwanese government spokesman rejected the measure as a "serious provocation."
"It also brought emotional pain to the Taiwanese people, restricts Taiwan's freedom and democracy, and has a serious impact on security in the East-Asia region," said Joseph Wu, chairman of the island's Mainland Affairs Council, which handles policy toward Beijing.
In a session broadcast on national television, the Chinese delegates burst into applause after the law was approved 2,896-0, with two abstentions. The body usually votes overwhelmingly for Communist Party policies, but the emphatic result was meant to send a message of the intensity of Beijing's sentiment on the issue.
Taiwan and China split in 1949. Beijing has threatened repeatedly to attack if it tries to make its de facto independence permanent.
Any outbreak of hostilities could ensnare the United States, which is Taiwan's biggest arms supplier and is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself. Under Washington's one-China policy, the United States agrees to have no diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognizes Beijing as China's sole government.
McClellan reiterated that policy but said U.S. officials were dismayed at the threat of force.
"We oppose any attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means," McClellan said in Washington.
A leading Taiwanese lawmaker called the measure a "savage law."
The new law shows that China "feels futile and doesn't know how to deal with Taiwan's democracy and freedom," said Chen Chin-jun, a member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
"We can clearly see that Taiwan and China ... are not one China. They are two Chinas or one country on each side. Whatever law they passed, Taiwan has its own sovereignty, government, country and democracy."
About 30 protesters -- mostly pro-independence lawmakers -- demonstrated outside the Taiwanese legislature, burning a Chinese flag and chanting anti-China slogans.
The law says China would "employ nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity." It said such steps could be taken if Taiwan declared formal independence, if "major incidents" occurred causing Taiwan to separate permanently from China or if "possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted."
Legislators said the law would send a message that Beijing's patience was wearing thin.
"For us in the armed forces, this gives us a legal foundation on which to make our preparations to maintain our sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Lt. Zhang Shantong, a delegate from the People's Liberation Army.
The law triggered a call for peaceful dialogue from Japan and discussion of Australia's treaty obligations should a war break out.
Tokyo and Washington issued a joint statement in February listing for the first time the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue as a joint strategic objective.
China has spent heavily in recent years to modernize its 2.5 million-member army, focusing on adding high-tech weapons to extend its reach and back up threats to attack Taiwan.
"We shall step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win the wars if any," Hu said Sunday, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Many Chinese are strongly nationalistic and support unification with Taiwan. But because China allows no opposition politicians or free press, it was difficult to gauge the level of genuine support for the law.
On a Beijing street, a migrant from the poor inland province of Anhui who was selling pirated DVDs showed little interest in the government's statements about Taiwan.
"We're ordinary people," said the man, who would give only his surname, Ye. "We worry about what to eat, what to wear."
Taiwan has condemned a new Chinese law giving Beijing the legal right to use force against the island if it moves towards declaring formal independence.
Such "serious provocation" gravely affects regional security, said Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.
The White House said the adoption of the new law was "unfortunate".
China sees Taiwan as its territory and says it reserves the right to use force if "peaceful reunification" fails.
The new law was passed in the final session of the Chinese parliament's annual National People's Congress by a margin of 2,896 to zero, with two abstentions.
The Congress broke into applause at the passage of the so-called anti-secession law which allows for the use of "non-peaceful and other necessary measures".
Ruled by separate governments since end of Chinese civil war in 1949
China considers the island part of its territory
China has offered a "one country, two systems" solution, like Hong Kong
Most people in Taiwan support status quo
Analysts say the new law is partly designed to limit the options of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party is pro-independence.
But it will add to tensions across the Taiwan Strait, where China has been rapidly building up its military capability.
"The law is tantamount to authorisation of war," warned Taiwanese cabinet spokesman Cho Jung-tai.
"All people in Taiwan are against the legislation, and we believe the world community also opposes it."
President Chen has called for hundreds of thousands of people to join a mass street protest later this month.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will visit Beijing during a tour to Asia this week, said the law was "not necessary".
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: "We view the adoption of the anti-secession law as unfortunate. It does not serve the purpose of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."
The state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity
China's anti-secession law
The US is Taiwan's closest ally and is worried about being sucked in to any conflict between the island and China.
Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, also expressed concern.
"I wish both parties would work toward a peaceful solution and I hope that this law will not have negative effects," he said.
The 10-article law calls for the use of "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity" if all other efforts fail.
China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, said the law was aimed at improving relations with Taiwan.
"This is a law to strengthen and promote cross-Strait relations, for peaceful reunification, not targeted at the people of Taiwan, nor is it a law of war," he said.
Some analysts have said China's use of the term "non-peaceful means" appears designed to include alternatives to military force, such as blockades or sanctions.
The law's passage comes a day after China's President, Hu Jintao, told China's 2.5 million-strong People's Liberation Army, whose budget has risen rapidly in recent years, to put national defence "above all else".
"We shall step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win the wars if any," the president said.
China's leaders frequently make such statements, which are often directed at Taiwan.