The agenda for the current National People’s Congress of China reportedly includes an antisecession bill for preventing the independence of Taiwan. The Chinese leadership wants to have the bill enacted by the end of the session on March 14. The contents of the draft legislation have not been made public, but according to reports in Hong Kong newspapers and other sources, it embodies Beijing’s intention to resolve the Taiwan problem by “nonpeaceful means” in the event certain conditions arise. The conditions that are listed in the bill reportedly include a declaration of independence by Taipei, an outbreak of riots in Taiwan and military intervention by foreign forces.

Predictably, the reports have provoked strong reactions from pro-independence Taiwanese. In an interview with Kyodo News Agency late last month, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian criticized such legislation, saying that “China is unilaterally trying to change the present situation of the Taiwan Strait by giving legal grounds to a military invasion of Taiwan.” He went on to say that if the antisecession bill is forcefully enacted, “there will be calls in Taiwan for the enactment of a law against annexation by China or a referendum to gauge the popular will concerning the antisecession law.”

If an exercise of Chinese military force became a reality, Japan as well could not write the matter off as a “fire on the other side” since such a development would directly impact its own security.

In response to calls for it to relinquish the use of military force as an option against Taiwan, China until now has explained that if it did so, Taiwan would probably declare independence immediately. It’s certainly the case that, unlike when it was in opposition, the pro-independence ruling Democratic Progressive Party has switched to a stance of avoiding friction with China. Most likely the DPP has been forced to give consideration to public opinion worried over the possibility of a military clash with China.

In practice, however, if China were to actually exercise military force against Taiwan, strong criticism from the entire international community would block China’s road to becoming an economic superpower. Therefore, statements by Beijing about “peaceful unification” with Taiwan and “maintenance of the status quo on the Taiwan Strait” can be seen as not simply slogans but the true feelings of the leadership centered around President Hu Jintao.

So why Beijing’s rush now to enact legislation on the exercise of military force? First, there are moves by the government of President Chen to enact a new Constitution in 2008. Both the United States and Japan have expressed their concern to Taiwan that such a move would unilaterally change the situation, and China has warned that it would consider such a move as a step toward legal independence. By encoding the military threat, China can be seen as trying to make the first move in response to such a possibility.

Second, according to an analysis by sources in the Taiwan Office of the President, China is displaying a “no compromise” stance on the Taiwan problem to show both domestic and international audiences that there has been no change in its policy despite the change in leadership in Beijing. Such a law would also be useful in avoiding any conflicts within the Chinese Communist Party over policy toward Taiwan. Whatever the case, according to these sources, it is wrong to see this legislation as meaning that the Hu Jintao leadership has shifted to a hardline approach. In China, frequent demonstrations by farmers and workers in inland areas, which the country’s economic development has bypassed, are rocking the CCP regime. Economic construction and dealing with these disturbances are more urgent than the Taiwan problem.

Even so, China’s rush to expand its military power has made the international community wary of Beijing. The intrusion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japanese territorial waters and China’s hardline attitude on exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea and around Okinoshima have further raised fears of the threats posed by China’s growing military strength. It is of no little significance that the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee took up the Taiwan problem for the first time in a recent “2 plus 2” meeting, and its statement declared that the two sides would “encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue.”

East Asian nations are beginning to share recognition that the Taiwan problem concerns the security of the entire region. In such an environment, even mere talk of antisecession legislation could be taken as more counterproductive saber-rattling on the part of Beijing.

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