Tossing a thunderbolt across the Formosa Strait, the president of Taiwan on Monday scrapped a dormant advisory body on unifying the island with China in defiance of warnings from Beijing and Washington not to stir up trouble.
The move, while largely symbolic, is certain to rile China and test the Bush administration's ability to keep a snug rein on the pro-independence Taiwan leader.
President Chen Shui-bian said he had decided to terminate the National Unification Council, an inactive policymaking body, and scrap 15-year-old guidelines on how to achieve eventual reunification. The actions are to take effect today.
Chen said the move "does not involve changing the status quo, but it is based on the democratic principle of sovereignty resting on the people."
Beijing accused Chen of stoking tensions across the volatile Formosa Strait.
"His further escalation of secessionist activities will no doubt stoke tensions and trigger a serious crisis in the Straits," the official China Daily said in an editorial today.
"Chen's risky and provocative actions also threaten to destroy peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," it said.
The United States is legally committed to providing Taiwan the means to defend itself against China.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Since then Beijing has used a blend of threats and diplomacy to bring the self-governing island back into its fold, including the passage of a law last March codifying the use of force if Taipei moves to institutionalize its de facto independence.
Washington doesn't support independence for Taiwan, and it has called on Beijing and Taipei to respect a fragile status quo across the strait. China maintains some 700 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Chen said the move to suspend the council was prompted by "China's persistent military threat and its attempts to use nonpeaceful means to unilaterally change the status quo in the (Formosa) Strait."
Former President Lee Teng-hui established the council in 1990, but it became dormant once Chen came to power in 2000. He has promised repeatedly to keep the reunification body in place.
The 1991 guidelines, which set a condition of unifying with China only once the mainland had moved from communism to democracy, were adopted as the blueprint for cross-strait policy.
Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.