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.
The United States later Monday denounced the new law as destabilizing.
"We view the adoption of the anti-secession law as unfortunate," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters in Washington. "It does not serve the purpose of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. We believe it runs counter to recent progress in cross-Strait relations."
McClellan added, "We oppose any attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by anything other than peaceful means. We don't want to see any unilateral attempts that would increase tensions in the region. So this is not helpful."
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."