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Commentary (March 16, 2005)

China's Anti-Secession Law: A Shot in the Foot

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

The impact of Beijing's adoption of the anti-secession law - widely criticised in Taiwan as well as in the west even before it was unveiled on Monday - may be the opposite of the drafters' intention.

While the mainland government pointed out that the law emphasises its desire for peace, Taiwan has, quite understandably, focused on the section that says under certain circumstances Beijing "shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures". The cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council in Taiwan issued a "solemn declaration" that expressed its "severest condemnation" of the legislation.

Actually, the law contains virtually nothing new. It is a reiteration of Chinese policy that is well known. No doubt, Beijing felt it was forced to take this action to counter the increasingly transparent moves by Taiwan over the past six years or so to move towards independence, from then president Lee Teng-hui's assertion in 1999 that Taiwan and the mainland had "special state-to-state relations" to President Chen Shui-bian's declaration in 2002 that there was "one country on each side" of the Taiwan Strait.

However, Beijing passed the legislation at a time when Mr Chen had moderated his position on independence. In fact, on February 24, he asserted that he would not declare independence, change the official name of the country, or promote a referendum on "independence or reunification".

Moreover, the Taiwan people showed in December that they were not in favour of rapid moves towards independence by refusing to give pro-independence legislators a majority in the legislature. And relations between Beijing and Taipei had improved to the extent that charter flights were organised during the Lunar New Year for Taiwanese businesspeople to fly non stop between the two sides of the strait for the first time in more than 50 years.

There is now a danger that Taiwan may take action to retaliate against Beijing. Already, it has rejected a proposal to negotiate an agreement on future cross-strait flights, saying that discussion was impossible under the shadow of a military threat. Beijing wants to see an agreement not only for passenger flights but for cargo flights, too.

The new legislation says that its purpose is to oppose and check "Taiwan's secession from China". It also says that "both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China", a formulation first used by the Kuomintang government.

Why did Beijing adopt this law? To a large extent, it hopes that its passage will halt Taiwan's gradual move towards independence, a process that has been gaining momentum in recent years.

President Hu Jintao , in a speech this month, pointed out that "the existing regulations and documents in Taiwan" also support a "one-China" principle. Evidently, Beijing does not want to see these laws and regulations changed.

For example, even the additional articles in the constitution adopted in 1991 under Mr Lee assume that Taiwan will eventually be reunified with mainland China. They also say that the territory of the Republic of China includes both the mainland and Taiwan, although only Taiwan belongs to the "free area" of the republic.

Ironically, Taiwan's current laws also do not allow secession. The National Security Law, promulgated in 1987, says that public demonstrations "must not violate the constitution, advocate communism or the division of the national territory".

Beijing is fearful that, left unchecked, all these references to Taiwan and the mainland being one country will be excised.

The danger is that the passage of the new law will provoke Taiwan into changing the status quo in precisely the way that the legislation is intended to prevent.

(Originally appeared in the March 16, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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