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China Congress passes Taiwan bill

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China's top legislative body has approved a resolution that authorizes Beijing to use military force to prevent Taiwan from declaring its independence.

The measure, passed on Monday by the National People's Congress, "represents the common will and strong determination of the Chinese people to safeguard the territorial integrity" of China, NPC chairman Wu Bangguo said.

Wu said the measure would "promote the peaceful reunification" and "contain secessionist forces in Taiwan," which China's ruling Communist Party considers a renegade province.

The law allows China's State Council and the Central Military Commission to move against any formal secession attempt by Taiwan as a last resort, should chances for peaceful reunification "be completely exhausted."

But Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the new legislation was not a "war bill."

"This is a law advancing peaceful unification between the sides. It is not targeted at the people of Taiwan, nor is it a war bill," Wen said at a news conference, shortly after the law was passed.

China has long threatened to take military action to prevent Taiwan from declaring formal independence.

Monday's resolution, approved as the annual National People's Congress came to a close, puts a legal framework behind those threats.

The law also declares that the status of Taiwan "is China's internal affair, which subjects to no interference by any outside forces."

The measure has triggered widespread criticism from Taiwan, where one leader called it a "dark cloud" hanging over relations with mainland China. There was no immediate reaction to its passage from Taipei.

In Washington, the Bush administration last week called it "unhelpful" and urged Beijing to reconsider the bill. But Wu said the measure would promote peaceful reunification and regional stability.

"This law has practical and profound historical significance," he said.

China hopes the law will deter Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian from pushing for the island's independence before the end of his second and last term in 2008, analysts say, Reuters reported.

Despite the legislation, analysts say the People's Liberation Army has no immediate plans to attack Taiwan and the "non-peaceful" means is not specifically a reference to war. It could, for example, be economic sanctions or blockades.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, which lies east of the Chinese coast, since Nationalist troops lost the Chinese civil war on the mainland and fled to the island in 1949.

Reuters reports the new law will feature in talks between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Chinese counterpart Li Zhaoxing in Beijing on March 20-21.

Washington recognizes China but is Taiwan's main supporter and arms supplier.

U.S. President George W. Bush has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself against any Chinese attack.

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2008 Cable News Network