HONOLULU — “Unhelpful.” That’s how Washington described China’s new antisecession law, which authorizes the use of “nonpeaceful means” if the opportunity for peaceful reunification with Taiwan becomes “completely exhausted.” I beg to differ. As it turns out, the law has proven to be very helpful — to everyone but Beijing, that is.

The law has turned a potential diplomatic embarrassment for President George W. Bush into a diplomatic victory. Earlier this year, the European Union seemed intent on lifting its arms-export embargo on China (in place since the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy), despite — or perhaps because of — strong vocal pressure from the White House and Congress.

The new law gave the Europeans a face-saving out. It “created quite a difficult political environment,” lamented one proponent of lifting the ban. Others acknowledged that “the timeline has become more difficult.”

As a result, the lifting of the EU embargo, which seemed a sure bet in December, in all likelihood will now be “postponed” until 2006. By passing the law, Beijing snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in its diplomatic contest with Washington, while boosting — or at least preventing a further deterioration of — Washington’s relations with Brussels.

Helpful as the law was to Trans-Atlantic relations, it was even more helpful to its intended target, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. Chinese officials have argued that the new law was necessary to check Chen’s “splittist” ambitions. But in December elections, his ruling coalition had failed to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY), despite Chen’s brash predictions. With his “in-your-face” policies toward Beijing seen as a major contributing factor in the defeat, Chen’s postelection tone had become far more conciliatory.

Why then did Beijing feel compelled to proceed with the law? Apparently, by the time Beijing realized that Chen’s coalition would not prevail in the LY elections, the political momentum (read: high-level leadership support) for the law was too great to turn it off.

Besides, Beijing interlocutors argued, the election setback had not caused Chen to change his objectives, only his tactics. The counter-argument — that the law would breathe new life into the pro-independence movement – fell on deaf ears in Beijing. But even the hard of hearing could not miss the collective voices of half a million or more Taiwanese, who took to the streets last weekend to voice their displeasure over the law, a demonstration smoothly orchestrated by the Chen government.

As many had warned, Beijing’s heavy-handed action has revitalized Chen’s coalition and put the opposition once again on the defensive.

The big question is, “What happens next?” Does the law make further progress in cross-strait relations unlikely (if not impossible), as its critics argue, or does it, as Beijing contends, open the door for further progress as long as Taiwan does not take irreversible steps toward independence?

After all, the refusal to rule out the use of force is nothing new; this has always been a major element of Beijing’s cross-strait policy. Passing a law — in a country where the rule of law is, at best, applied selectively — hardly makes an attack any more (or less) likely.

Of more relevance, and considerably more promising, than Article Eight — the “nonpeaceful means” clause — is Article Seven, which affirms that “the state stands for the achievement of peaceful reunification through consultations and negotiations on an equal footing between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits.”

Even more intriguing is the acknowledgment that “these consultations and negotiations may be conducted in steps and phases and with flexible and varied modalities.” While an earlier article notes that “upholding the principle of one China is the basis of peaceful reunification,” there is no specified requirement in the new law for Taipei to accept the one-China principle as a precondition for starting the process of consultations and negotiations.

Does this mean that Beijing is prepared, finally, to be more flexible on this point? Who knows, but it would be irresponsible of Taipei to overlook this possibility, since it just might hold the key to an eventual resumption of cross-strait dialogue.

As I read the new law, China is not demanding that Taipei accept the one-China principle — only that it not take any action that “completely exhausts” or foreclose the possibility. It remains unclear what “flexible and varied modalities” are acceptable to Beijing.

An acknowledgment by Taipei of the existence of a previous “agreement to agree to disagree” over the interpretation of one China — the “1992 consensus,” which allowed earlier direct cross-strait dialogue to occur — might suffice. Chen himself hinted at such an agreement in his National Day speech last October, when he proposed that “both sides use the basis of the 1992 meeting in Hong Kong . . . as preparation of a step forward in the resumption of dialogue and consultation.”

If Taiwan’s leadership is prepared to move beyond the emotion of the new law and creatively test its possibilities, and the leadership in Beijing is serious when it asserts that the law opens rather than closes the door for meaningful dialogue, then the antisecession law might yet prove helpful to both Taipei and Beijing.

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