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China Puts Threat to Taiwan Into Law

Move Could Reverse Recent Warming in Cross-Strait Relations

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A01

BEIJING, March 14 -- China enacted a law Monday authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence, codifying its long-standing threat to attack the island. The measure could provoke a popular backlash in Taiwan and quickly unravel recent progress in cross-strait relations.

The National People's Congress, the ruling Communist Party's rubber-stamp parliament, approved the anti-secession law by a vote of 2,896 to 0, with two abstentions, defying U.S. appeals for restraint and strong protests by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian as well as some of his political rivals.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, left, and Premier Wen Jiabao press buttons to vote for an anti-secession law during China's National Peoples' Congress in Beijing. (Greg Baker -- AP)

Chen has vowed a tough response, and mainland analysts have expressed concern that Taiwan's pro-independence camp will use the law to rally public sentiment against Beijing and push for measures that could escalate tensions. Chen's government convened a national security meeting and was preparing to announce limited changes in trade policy toward the mainland, local media reported.

The vote came a day after President Hu Jintao was named chairman of the state military commission, relieving Jiang Zemin, the former president, of his final post. Passage of the law appeared timed to highlight the new leader's control of Taiwan policy and his resolve on the issue.

"We shall step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win the wars, if any," Hu said Sunday at a meeting of the Chinese military's delegation at the parliament. The legislation says the government "shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity" but is not specific about what would trigger such action against Taiwan.

Instead, it uses language that leaves the Chinese leadership with the flexibility to judge when an attack would be necessary, slightly altering the wording used by the government in previous statements of its Taiwan policy. The law says China should use force if Taiwan secedes, if "major events" move the island toward secession or if "possibilities for peaceful reunification are completely exhausted."

In a televised news conference immediately after the vote, Premier Wen Jiabao sought to focus attention on other provisions of the law that call for greater economic and cultural exchanges with Taiwan. He also said Beijing was ready to allow regular charter flights between the mainland and Taiwan.

"This is a law for advancing peaceful reunification. It is not targeted at the people of Taiwan, nor is it a war bill," he said. "The law is intended to check and oppose Taiwan independence forces. Only by checking and opposing Taiwan independence forces will peace emerge in the Taiwan Strait."

Wen compared the law to anti-secession resolutions passed by the U.S. Congress before the Civil War and said military action would be a last resort. He said China lagged far behind the United States in military strength, but he prompted applause from Chinese journalists and officials by adding, "We don't hope for foreign interference, yet we are not afraid of it."

Taiwan's government has condemned the anti-secession law as a "blank check" to invade and suggested it might retaliate by pursuing sensitive revisions to the island's constitution -- a move China has warned could prompt a military response. In a speech Saturday, Chen said the law risked triggering a "full-phase backtracking of relations" and pledged to mobilize 1 million people for a protest against the Chinese decision.

"The Taiwanese people will not remain silent and will stand up," he said, adding that "the proposed anti-secession law will backfire, and end up only driving both sides of the strait further apart."

The Chinese government asserts that Taiwan is part of its territory and has as many as 700 missiles aimed at the island located 100 miles off the mainland's southeast coast. Taiwan's elected leaders insist it is an independent, sovereign country. The United States formally recognizes only the Chinese government, but it sells arms to Taiwan and has pledged to help defend the island of 23 million.

The Bush administration had urged China to abandon the anti-secession law and warned it could jeopardize the recent warming in cross-strait relations.

It has also been pressuring the European Union to drop plans to end a 15-year-old arms embargo against China, arguing that weapons from Europe might be used against U.S. forces in a conflict over Taiwan. The E.U. has so far rejected the U.S. appeals, but European diplomats say heightened tensions in the strait caused by the anti-secession law could lead it to reconsider.

Chinese officials and scholars have debated adopting legislation on Taiwan for years. Some of the party's more hawkish members had urged a "reunification law" that set a deadline for the island to be returned to mainland rule. The anti-secession law includes no such deadline.

But analysts said the law could limit a Chinese leader's options in a crisis, as well as in talks with Taiwan on resolving a standoff dating to the 1949 Communist revolution. Its enactment represents a strong political commitment by Hu to risk a confrontation with the U.S. military and employ force if Taiwan goes too far in its efforts to achieve formal independence.

In one of the dangerous ambiguities of cross-strait relations, though, China has never specified how it defines formal independence, given that the island has already governed itself for more than a half-century, held several elections and established diplomatic relations with foreign countries.

Chen has been testing China's bottom line with proposals to rewrite Taiwan's constitution, remove the word "China" from the name of its overseas diplomatic offices and seek entry into international organizations.

Chinese officials said the anti-secession legislation was intended to deter Chen. Preparations to enact it began last year as his party appeared on the verge of taking control of Taiwan's parliament. But Chen scaled back his pro-independence campaign after his party failed to win a majority in the December elections.

Mainland officials responded with softer rhetoric, and tensions eased as the two sides agreed to allow nonstop charter flights between the mainland and Taiwan during last month's Lunar New Year holidays.

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