HONOLULU — The unprecedented direct flights between Taiwan and China during the Chinese New Year holiday period and Beijing’s dispatch of two senior Chinese representatives to Taiwan for the memorial service of Koo Chen-fu — who conducted breakthrough cross-strait dialogue a decade ago under the now disputed and frequently redefined “1992 consensus” — finally suggests some progress in cross-strait relations. So why, then, does Beijing feel it necessary to pursue antisecession legislation aimed at Taiwan?

The simple answer seems to be China’s continuing deep distrust of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. 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 Chen himself — were predicting victory for the ruling coalition in the December 2004 Legislative Yuan (LY) elections.

By the time the outcome presented a more pleasant surprise, 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, although his tactics might change.

The main Chinese “concession” in response to the LY election outcome was to rename the bill. The “Unification Law” — a title that implied an aggressive, impatient outlook — became antisecession legislation aimed merely at “preserving the status quo.” Since U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated that he opposed 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.

The counterarguments — that the legislation will incite and empower Beijing’s critics in Washington and Taipei and could breathe 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, we are all ears; if you are trying to talk us out of introducing the new law, “save your breath!” Once you actually see the legislation — and it was to be made public immediately after it was approved by the National People’s Congress — you will see that all the furor had been “much ado about nothing.”

Perhaps. But regardless of its content, the antisecession law presents a target of opportunity to Chen that he will find hard to resist shooting at. If Chen sees his second-term legacy as building a bridge across the 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 China, 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, like it or not, will be in Chen’s court once again. He would be well-served to 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 it certain coalition members are demanding harsher actions.

The Bush administration, wisely in my view, seems to be waiting to see the wording of the legislation before reacting. 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.

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