Chinese leaders assembled in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 5, 2004, for the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress.

Everyone remain calm over
China’s Anti-Secession Law

It is not uncommon in America to condemn movies we haven't seen or criticize books we haven't read, based solely on their titles or our worst fears regarding their presumed or rumored contents. It seems our compatriots in Taiwan have adopted this same trait.

I'm talking about the critical reaction in Taipei (and in some circles in Washington) to Beijing's proposed new Anti-Secession Law, slated for enactment by the National Peoples' Congress, which convened yesterday. While the text has yet to be seen, that has not prevented many in both capitals from severely condemning the legislation.

It is difficult to be too critical of this tendency, having been guilty of it myself -- during a recent trip to Beijing I found myself expressing concerns about the implications of the legislation, regardless of its contents. The big question is "Why now?" At a time when there seems to finally be some modest progress in cross-strait relations -- the unprecedented direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland during the Chinese New Year holiday period and the sending of two senior Chinese representatives to Taiwan for the memorial service for Koo Chen-fu, who conducted breakthrough cross-strait dialogue a decade ago under the now disputed and frequently redefined "1992 consensus" -- why does Beijing feel it necessary to pursue such legislation?

The simple answer seems to be that continuing deep distrust of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian is at the root of the legislation. It had its genesis in Chen's surprise re-election in March 2004 and received added impetus last fall when Beijing's experts -- like most Taiwan-watchers, not to mention President Chen himself -- were predicting victory for the ruling coalition in the December 2004 Legislative Yuan elections. By the time the outcome presented a more pleasant surprise (at least from Beijing's perspective), the new law had already gained too much momentum to be abandoned. Besides, Beijing interlocutors argued, the results of the LY election, while admittedly making it harder for Chen to carry out his "splittist" agenda, were not likely to persuade him to alter his overall independence agenda. His tactics might change, but not his objective.

The main Chinese "concession" in response to the LY election outcome was to rename the bill. The "Unification Law" -- a title which implied an aggressive, impatient outlook -- became anti-secession legislation aimed merely at "preserving the status quo." Since President Bush has repeatedly stated that he opposes any unilateral change in the status quo, this new legislation "puts Beijing's One China principle squarely in line with Washington's One China policy," it was argued. It also "underscores China's respect for the rule of law." While these arguments are not particularly convincing, they do represent a growing sophistication (and willingness to play the Bush administration's logic back at Washington).

The counter-arguments -- that the legislation will incite and empower Beijing's critics in Washington and Taipei and could breath new life into Chen's presumed "independence agenda" by handing him an excuse for counter legislation or another referendum -- failed to impress Chinese officials, who sent a clear signal about their ambiguous legislation: If you want to make suggestions as to how we can word this legislation more effectively (or make it less inflammatory), we are all ears; if you are trying to talk us out of introducing the new law, save your breath! Once we actually saw the legislation -- and it would be made public immediately after it was approved by the NPC -- we would see that all the furor had been "much ado about nothing."

Perhaps! But regardless of its content, the Anti-Secession Law presents a target of opportunity to Chen that he will find hard to resist. If Chen sees his second-term legacy as building a bridge across the Taiwan Strait, he might indeed see this legislation as the opportunity for dialogue that Beijing claims that it will represent: By laying out what is not allowed (i.e., independence), the Chinese logic goes, the legislation will open the door for serious cross-strait dialogue as long as this red line is not crossed. If Chen is more intent on solidifying Taiwan's separation from the mainland, however, he will approach the legislation like the trial lawyer he was, exploiting loopholes and finding ways of turning even the most passive of statements into justification in pursuit of this agenda.

Presuming that Beijing proceeds with this legislation -- and, regrettably, I see no reason to presume otherwise -- the ball will be in Chen's court once again. He should wait until seeing the legislation before locking himself into any course of action, as he currently seems to be doing: Earlier threats to introduce counter-legislation or hold an anti-annexation referendum are now wisely being described as "options" as opposed to intended actions by the president's office, even if certain coalition members are demanding harsher actions.

The Bush administration wisely seems to be waiting to see the wording of the legislation before reacting (or overreacting). One hopes that Taiwan, and its friends in the U.S. Congress, will do the same. It would be much wiser in the long run to examine how the legislation, once revealed, might be turned to Taipei's geopolitical advantage, rather than to merely exploit it for domestic political purposes, as tempting as that course of action might be.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute, and senior editor of Comparative Connections.

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