A March 8 article misidentified the political party of Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian. It is the Democratic Progressive Party, not the Democratic People's Party. (Published 3/16/2005)

A controversial anti-secession bill whose terms were announced Tuesday enshrines into law China's determination to use "non-peaceful means" as a last resort to prevent Taiwan from establishing formal independence.

The legislation, certain to be passed in the coming days by the National People's Congress, puts on record in a binding legal code the long-standing Chinese threat to use force if Taiwan's leaders take steps toward independence that Beijing regards as intolerable. It also specifies that China's goal is to achieve reunification through peaceful means and that military action would be undertaken only if the leadership found no other way to deal with the problem.

"The draft legislation provides that in the event the Taiwan independence forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Wang Zhaoguo, deputy chairman of the assembly's Standing Committee.

"Using non-peaceful means to stop secession in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity would be our last resort when all our efforts for a peaceful reunification should prove futile," he added.

Wang's detailed description of the legislation, released verbatim by the assembly secretariat, constituted the official unveiling of legislation that has swelled tension across the Taiwan Strait in recent weeks. Leaders of the self-governing island have denounced the law as a trigger for war; the Bush administration has counseled China to abandon it, or at least ensure it did not poison the atmosphere at a time when cross-strait relations had seemed to be improving.

But Wang said the anti-secession law "is both necessary and timely" to prevent further moves toward formal independence by President Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic People's Party in Taipei. In apparent response to Washington's intervention, he quoted the legislation as saying the struggle over Taiwan is "China's internal affair" and "we will not submit to any interference by outside forces."

In his description of the law, Wang did not spell out what specific steps toward independence might lead China's leaders to decide on a military response. But he listed as particularly troubling several goals that Chen has mentioned repeatedly, including revision of Taiwan's constitution and consulting the island's 23 million people through referendums on questions regarding independence.

China has long regarded Taiwan as a province that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary, even though the 13,592-square-mile island has governed itself since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists retreated there in 1949 following their defeat by Mao Zedong's Communist forces.

The law described Tuesday does not change that policy; it only formalizes it. Moreover, any decision on using force against Taiwan would likely be taken by China's leaders on the basis of military, political and diplomatic calculations -- not by a check of the law books.

Nonetheless, by adding the solemn force of law to its policy, China put Chen and his followers on notice in a dramatic way that, should they go too far in their quest for independence, Beijing is ready to use its growing military might.

"We have never forsworn the use of force," Wang said, describing terms of the law. "No sovereign state can tolerate secession and every sovereign state has the right to use necessary means to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity."

President Hu Jintao's government decided on the legislation last fall, when tensions over Taiwan were high and Chinese officials had concluded Chen was determined to go as far as he could along the path toward formal independence. But the atmosphere has changed markedly since Chen's People's Progressive Party suffered a setback in legislative elections Dec. 11.

The vote was interpreted as a caution signal to Chen from Taiwanese voters that, while they may oppose reunification, they do not want a confrontation with the mainland. Since Dec. 11, both governments have gone out of their way to send conciliatory signals, including direct charter flights across the strait for the Chinese New Year. In that light, the anti-secession law's language was kept secret until Wang described it Tuesday to the nearly 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress.

The law had already been set in motion by the Dec. 11 vote, a Chinese specialist on Taiwan said, and Hu could not stop the process even though Chen seemed to be pulling back. In dealing with Taiwan, the specialist noted, the Chinese leader has to deal with military officers and others who believe taking a tough line with Chen is the only way to prevent full secession.

Standing Committee official Wang Zhaoguo said use of force "would be our last resort."