Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Cold Shoulder

Beijing sets up legal cover for an attack on Taiwan
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, February 21, 2005

The year of the rooster came in mild in Taipei, and the political climate seemed warmer, too. For the first time in 55 years Taiwan allowed Chinese airlines to land on its territory after a landmark agreement on two-way cross-strait charter flights for the holiday. Since Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence party failed to win a legislative majority in December, he's had conciliatory words for both China and his domestic opposition.

But a cold snap may be coming soon. On March 5, China's top legislative body will begin meeting in Beijing, where it is expected to pass an "anti-secession" law aimed squarely at pro-independence Taiwanese. The contents of the law, approved in principle in late December by the legislature's Standing Committee, are shrouded in secrecy. The exact purpose is still unclear. But the very notion of such a law—which suggests possible retaliation by China should Taiwan pursue formal independence—has riled the self-ruled, democratic island.

Taipei fears that Taiwanese executives and others living in China will be targeted. Government officials and academics warn that the law could trigger yet another dangerous round of cross-strait tensions. That would be bad not just for Taiwan and China but for Japan, Europe and the United States—all of which are trying to improve ties with Beijing and accommodate China's rise as an economic powerhouse and regional military force. Beijing appears all too ready to exploit that global leverage. "It's a common theme in cross-strait relations and international relations in general: when one side is ready to talk, the other side drops a grenade in their lap," says Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at Davidson College in North Carolina.

To defuse China's gambit, Taiwan has launched a lobbying blitz, sending high-level delegations in recent weeks to Japan, Europe and the United States. Taipei wants foreign capitals—Washington in particular—to strong-arm Beijing into nixing the law, or at least to keep the language vague enough to avoid any concrete obligations. Joseph Wu, the chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, who led the delegation to Washington, says the bill flies in the face of reality: the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been politically separate for more than 55 years. Worse, Wu says, "China could use this law as a blank check in using force."

Opposition to the law cuts across Taiwan's polarized political spectrum. Even the Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China and dislikes Chen as much as, if not more than, Beijing does, has joined the chorus of protest. While opposition figures blame Chen and his aggressive endorsement of a separate Taiwanese identity for rising tensions, they fear that the anti-secession law could spark a dangerous chain reaction, such as an island-wide referendum that China could interpret as a declaration of independence.

For its part, Beijing sees the law, which would likely commit it to using "any means" including war to prevent a permanent break, as a deterrent. Ever since Chen's 2000 election, his every move seems to provoke more distrust; in late 2003, when he proposed a referendum on a new constitution that would take effect in 2008, Beijing read it as a "timetable for independence" and began mulling pre-emptive legal measures. When Chen was re-elected last March, Beijing accelerated its plans. Although Chen insists constitutional reforms are meant to strengthen democracy and not to address issues of sovereignty, Beijing sees the effort as an attempt to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence. Says Yang Lixian, a division chief at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing: "When [Chen] proposed this, it was like serving the mainland a notice of war. "

Taiwan's public-relations campaign against the anti-secession law has been —hampered by China's refusal to release its contents. Japan, following Washington's lead, has stayed mum about the law, saying it needs to see the details. Taiwan's delegation to Europe received a friendly hearing in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, but the response farther west was less sympathetic. Since EU expansion last year, Europe has surpassed Japan and the United States to become China's largest trade partner, with 2004 trade volume booming more than 30 percent from the previous year. The EU is leaning toward lifting its arms embargo on China, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. And the Taiwanese delegation arrived just as Paris was awaiting word on whether China would purchase $4.26 billion worth of jets from Airbus.

While Taiwan has a far better friend in the United States, even Washington has grown frustrated with Chen. The Taiwanese president is now broadly viewed as a loose cannon who might drag the United States into a conflict with China's rapidly modernizing military, at a time when the White House is preoccupied with Iraq and waging a global war against terrorism.

But Washington hasn't turned a deaf ear to the pleas of its island ally. U.S. officials are engaged in quiet diplomacy to minimize the law's impact. Although there have been no public U.S. remarks, a State Department official says that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "did raise concerns about the anti-secession law" when he met with Chen Yunlin, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, in Washington on Jan. 5. But it's not clear how much leverage the United States has, particularly when it's leaning on China to help bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Analysts say the chances of China's easing off on the anti-secession law are slim. However, while the Chinese legislature is typically a rubber-stamp body, NEWSWEEK has learned that the wording of the law is far from decided. Scholars and the media expected to see a working draft after the Standing Committee met in December, but it never emerged. Some analysts believe the law's stealth nature may be a negotiating chip used to extract concessions from Washington and Taipei, and that China hasn't released a draft in part to gauge international reaction.

The real test will come in Taiwan when the final wording is known. Pro-independence voices are already pushing for an "anti-annexation" law that would formalize the island's objections to China's law. But any such moves would likely meet with stiff resistance from the United States and the opposition-controlled legislature, which begins a new session on Feb. 25. One thing's for sure: with the anti-secession law, China has succeeded in regaining the initiative in the dangerous game being played out across the strait. At this point, all that's left for Taiwan is to hunker down and wait for a cold blast from China.

With Jonathan Ansfield and Craig Simons in Beijing, Eve Conant in Washington, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris and Kay Itoi in Tokyo

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