(CNSNews.com) - Taiwan put its armed forces on high alert Thursday ahead of Saturday's presidential election, after China's latest threat to use force against the island if it moves further toward independence.
According to Asian press reports, Defense Minister Tang Fei said there had been no sign of major military activity on the communist-ruled mainland.
He said the island did not seek war with China, but neither did it fear conflict.
Defense Secretary William Cohen, speaking in Japan Thursday, warned Beijing not to use force against Taiwan, calling threats "counter-productive."
Earlier, China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, issued Beijing's most dramatic official warning yet to Taiwan, saying the Chinese people were "ready to shed blood" to crush any attempt by the island to seek independence.
Addressing a once-a-year press conference marking the end of the parliamentary session, Zhu said Taiwanese voters must reject pro-independence candidates standing for election and not "act on impulse."
"No matter who comes into power in Taiwan, Taiwan will never be allowed to be independent. This is our bottom line and the will of 1.25 billion Chinese people."
He warned the West against speculating on China's military capacity to attack Taiwan, an island of 22 million people, which Beijing considers a rebel province.
"Some people have made some calculations about how many aircraft, missiles and warships China possesses, and presumed that China dare not and will not use force based on such calculations.
"People making such calculations don't know about Chinese history ... The Chinese people are ready to shed blood and sacrifice their lives to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the motherland."
Zhu said he believed the people in Taiwan would make "the right historical choice" on Saturday.
Although he mentioned no names, the "right" choice for Beijing would exclude Chen Shui-bian, leader of the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
Reports from Taiwan suggest Chen has been gaining ground in the race against four other candidates, two of whom were running neck-and-neck with him when the last opinion surveys were allowed. Polls are banned in the last days of the campaign.
Newspapers in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to China in 1997, warned Thursday that Beijing's threats could backfire.
The English-language South China Morning Post said Zhu's statements "may so offend the Taiwanese electorate that they will ignore his warnings and vote for the candidate Beijing considers most undesirable."
"It is time the mainland stopped its ranting on Taiwan," editorialized the Hong Kong Standard. "Let the people on the island reflect on their choice calmly."
Other papers warned of the risk of turning the election into a referendum on independence versus reunification.
"The truth is, most Taiwanese wish for stability, peace, preserving the status quo and do not wish to see any pursuit of independence end in war," said Ming Pao.
The campaign for Taiwan's second democratically elected president has become a three-way race between Chen, Vice President Lien Chan of the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), and an independent candidate formerly of the KMT, James Soong.
Responding to Zhu's comments, the chairman on Taiwan's cabinet-level body for relations with Beijing, Su Chi, rejected mainland interference, while reiterating that the KMT government "vehemently oppose[s] what Mr. Chen says and what he stands for."
In his reaction, Chen told a campaign rally: "The Chinese communists want to turn Taiwan into a province whereas we are a country with independent sovereignty."
He said Taiwanese voters would not be intimidated by "threats of bullets."
The wealthy KMT, which has ruled Taiwan since its split from communist China in 1949, has fought its campaign by running propaganda adverts warning that a vote for Chen could lead to war.
Earlier this week Chen accused the government of engineering a record stock market plunge in a bid to scare off voters from supporting him. The KMT denied the charge.
Earlier during his regional tour, Defense Secretary Cohen said the U.S. was committed to establishing a lasting relationship with China, while he stressed the importance of a continued U.S. security presence in the region.