TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Taiwan’s leader used his National Day speech today to urge China to begin peace talks so the two rivals can avoid war.

Chinese and Taiwanese leaders haven’t met since the Communists took over China in 1949 and Taiwan began resisting the mainland’s rule. China insists that Taiwan is a Chinese province and has threatened to attack if it refuses to unify eventually.

“Because we can’t communicate, there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” President Chen Shui-bian said in his address.

Most Taiwanese deeply distrust the Communist leadership and don’t want Beijing to have a say in the democratic island’s affairs.

“If the military threat continues, the distance between the two sides will grow larger,” Chen said.

Taiwan has been drifting away from China since Chen took office in 2000. He has refused to accept Beijing’s sacred “one-China principle” – which says Taiwan is an inseparable part of China – and has insisted that Taiwan is an independent country that can determine its own political future.

Using China’s formal name, Chen said, “If the 23 million people of Taiwan agree, then the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China can develop any kind of relationship.”

Chen spoke in front of the Presidential Office after a parade of rifle-twirling soldiers in shiny chrome helmets, marching bands with long rows of tubas and school children waving green flags to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”

In an earlier address Sunday, Chen defended his plan to spend billions on U.S.-made weapons, saying that the Taiwanese can only rely on themselves to protect their island from China’s growing threat.

The president has been struggling to get the legislature’s approval for the $18 billion arms deal, which includes planes, submarines and Patriot missiles.

Washington agreed to sell Taiwan the weapons in 2001, but the island has made little progress in sealing the deal. The delay has fed U.S. suspicions that the Taiwanese aren’t serious about their defense and plan to rely on America – the island’s most powerful friend – to help repel a Chinese attack.

But Chen said that Taiwan understands its responsibilities.

“We can’t rely on others to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait. We can only rely on ourselves to have the strength to protect the status quo of peace,” he said.

China has been rapidly beefing up its military in recent years, loading up on destroyers, jets and submarines from Russia. Many analysts believe that China’s offensive capabilities will outstrip Taiwan’s defensive advantage in a few years.

On Sunday, the Taiwanese president mentioned China’s military buildup.

“When we’re facing the increasing military threat and buildup on the other side of the Taiwan Strait,” Chen said, “every citizen should recognize that increasing Taiwan’s defensive strength is the first condition of preserving the peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Strait.”

Opposition parties, which have a slim majority in the legislature, have opposed the U.S. weapons deal, saying the arms are too expensive.

AP-ES-10-09-04 2315EDT

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