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China warns Taiwan of "heavy cost" for U.N. vote

BEIJING (Reuters) - China raised the pressure on Taiwan a month ahead of its referendum on U.N. membership, warning authorities there that they were courting danger and may have to pay a heavy cost.

Beijing used strong wording in its first official reaction to Taiwan’s announcement on Friday that it would go ahead with a March 22 vote on whether to seek U.N. membership under the name “Taiwan” against opposition from the United States and China.

Declaring the decision a significant step in Taiwan’s attempt to attain formal independence, China said the referendum threatened peace in the Asia-Pacific region.

China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has claimed sovereignty over the self-ruled island since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. It has vowed to bring Taiwan back under mainland rule, by force if necessary.

“We pay close attention to development of this ‘referendum’ issue,” the Chinese Communist Party’s Taiwan Work Office and the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a joint statement on Saturday.

“If the authority led by Chen Shui-bian stubbornly risks danger in desperation, it will certainly pay a heavy cost,” the statement said.

Taiwan President Chen, whose ruling Democratic Progressive Party was thrashed in elections last month, has ratcheted up shows of independence ahead of the presidential elections, also scheduled for March 22.

Dogged by criticism that he accomplished too little as his eight-year term winds down, he visited the disputed Spratley Islands on Saturday to assert a territorial claim.

The United States has said that conducting a referendum would be a mistake and intentionally provocative.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, recognizing “one China”, but remains Taiwan’s biggest ally and is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself.

Reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani