China will attack Taiwan if there is no other way of stopping it from becoming independent, one of the country's most senior generals said on Friday, in a rhetorical escalation from China aimed at the democratic island Beijing claims as its own.
Speaking at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on the 15th anniversary of the Anti-Secession Law, Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff Department and member of the Central Military Commission, left the door open to using force.
The 2005 law gives the country the legal basis for military action against Taiwan if it secedes or seems about to, making the narrow Taiwan Strait a potential military flashpoint.
"If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the people's armed forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions," Li said.
"We do not promise to abandon the use of force, and reserve the option to take all necessary measures, to stabilise and control the situation in the Taiwan Strait," he added.
Although China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, it is rare for a top, serving military officer to so explicitly make the threat in a public setting. The comments are especially striking amid international opprobrium over China passing new national security legislation for Chinese-run Hong Kong.
Taiwan's government denounced the comments, saying that threats of war were a violation of international law and that Taiwan has never been a part of the People's Republic of China.
"Taiwan's people will never choose dictatorship nor bow to violence", Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said. "Force and unilateral decisions are not the way to resolve problems."
Li is one of China's few senior officers with combat experience, having taken part in China's ill-fated invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
Taiwan is China's most sensitive territorial issue. Beijing says it is a Chinese province, and has denounced the Trump administration's support for the island.
Li Zhanshu, the third-most-senior leader of China's ruling Communist Party and head of China's parliament, told the same event that non-peaceful means were an option of last resort.
"As long as there is a slightest chance of a peaceful resolution, we will put in hundred times the effort," Li said.
However, he added: "We warn Taiwan's pro-independence and separatist forces sternly, the path of Taiwan independence leads to a dead end; any challenge to this law will be severely punished".
Taiwan has shown no interest in being run by autocratic China. It has denounced China's repeated military drills near the island and rejected China's offer of a "one country, two systems" model of a high degree of autonomy.
Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party won presidential and parliamentary elections by a landslide in January, vowing to stand up to Beijing.
China is deeply suspicious of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, whom it accuses of being a separatist bent on declaring formal independence. Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name.
The mood in Taiwan toward China has further soured since China's parliament passed new national security legislation for Chinese-ruled Hong Kong on Thursday.