HONG KONG — The impact of the adoption by China of the antisecession law, widely criticized in Taiwan and in the West even before it was unveiled last Monday, may well be the opposite of what the drafters of the controversial legislation intended.

While Beijing pointed out that the law emphasizes its desire for peace, Taiwan has, quite understandably, focused on the section that provides that, under certain circumstances, the Chinese government “shall employ nonpeaceful 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 that is new. It is a reiteration of Chinese policy that is well-known to Taiwan and the United States. No doubt, Beijing felt it was forced to take this action to counter the increasingly transparent moves by Taiwan over the last half dozen years to move toward 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 Chen had noticeably moderated his position on independence. In fact, on Feb. 24 — more than two weeks before the law passed — Chen had solemnly asserted that he would not take such actions as declare independence, change the official name of the country or promote a referendum on “independence or reunification.”

Moreover, the Taiwan people had shown in December that they were not in favor of rapid moves toward independence by refusing to give proindependence legislators a majority in the Legislative Yuan. And relations between the two sides of the strait had improved to the extent that chartered flights were organized during the Lunar New Year for Taiwanese businesspeople to fly nonstop between the two sides for the first time in more than 50 years.

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

The new legislation says its purpose is to oppose and check “Taiwan’s secession from China” — rather than the People’s Republic of China, since Taiwan has never been governed by the current Beijing government. It also says that “both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China,” a formulation first used by the Nationalist government of Taiwan, but which is now out of power.

Why did Beijing adopt this law? To a large extent, Beijing hopes that the passage of this law will halt Taiwan’s gradual move toward independence, a process that has been gaining momentum in recent years. For one thing, Beijing wants to prevent Taiwan from dropping the name “Republic of China” and from changing its constitution, which Chen had been threatening to do.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a speech earlier 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 Lee assume that Taiwan will eventually be reunified with mainland China. It also assumes 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 of Taiwan, 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. In that sense, the antisecession law is an attempt to preserve the status quo against further change by proindependence forces on Taiwan.

The danger is that China’s passage of its new law will provoke Taiwan into changing the status quo in precisely the way that the legislation is intended to prevent. Whether this will happen depends to a large extent on how the people of Taiwan, as well as the KMT and other opposition parties, react to the antisecession Law.

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