The Bush Administration is now infamous for its “preemption doctrine,” which warns rogue states against providing safe haven for international terrorists or possessing weapons of mass destruction. The Chinese Government is following in US footsteps with Taiwan. The difference is that at least for now, the instrument for preemption is not force, but rather law.
The Standing Committee of the Chinese legislative body - the National People’s Congress has just begun a review of the proposed anti-session law, which aims at preventing Taiwan from formally declaring political independence. For many cross-strait observers, Beijing’s timing to widely publicise this legislation is puzzling. After all, the Pan Blue camp, which is leaning more towards recognising a “one China” principle,” just won an unexpected triumph in the recent legislative election. It was anticipated Beijing would feel relieved and consequently seize the opportunity to soften its policy and even offer an olive branch to Taiwan.
Such a scenario, however, is not apparently in China’s plans. Beijing took little comfort in the parliamentary election result, immediately moving to make public the consideration of the long-speculated anti-secession law. In a broad sense, Beijing’s move represents a significant change in its strategic mindset in dealing with Taiwan. In the past, Beijing took an approach of “striking only after the enemy has struck,” typically reacting to the ever-changing Taiwan political landscape. Among the Chinese elite circle, the Taiwan Affairs officials were often criticised as lacking in initiative and responding to Chen Shui-bian and DPP’s dazzling political manoeuvres in a “too little, too late” fashion. After Taiwan’s March presidential election in which the Pan Blue ticket was defeated, Beijing was more determined to reclaim the initiative in cross-strait relations by preempting rather than just reacting to the anticipated policy changes in Taiwan.
The 5.17 statement by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council right before Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration speech manifested this tactical adjustment. This time Beijing attempted to establish legal benchmarks of red lines to forestall Chen’s declared goal of passing a new constitution through referendum in 2006 and put it into force in 2008, which will pave the way for Taiwan’s de jure political independence. A narrow victory of the Pan Blues in the legislative election is simply not enough for Beijing to lay back and relax. Indeed some Chinese analysts predicted that Chen might further intensify his campaign of “de-sinicization”. With the Pan Blues’ inability to get its own act together, and its tendency to move closer towards the Pan Greens’ position on cross-strait relations for the sake of political expediency, Beijing can no longer afford to count on the KMT and PFP to suspend the Democratic Progress Party’s thrust towards political independence.
The proposed anti-secession law also indicates a subtle change in Beijing’s priorities with its Taiwan policy. For a long time, Beijing’s slogan has been “anti-independence and promotion of unification” (fan du cu tong) as if these two aspects of the policy could be achieved simultaneously. Jiang Zemin, who has just stepped-down as Chinese leader, attempted several times to set up a timetable for unification: Political reality in Taiwan, however, forced the new Chinese leadership to realise that the goal of unification with Taiwan was unattainable in the short term. Although the long-term objective of unification should never be forgotten, the more immediate and urgent challenge for Chinese leadership is to thwart or at least slow down Chen Shui-bian’s schedule for independence. In other words, opposition to independence does not necessarily mean visible progress towards unification. For the foreseeable future, if Taiwan could retain its current status, so much the better. That is one of the reasons why the title of the proposed legislation was changed from unification law to anti-secession law.
It is on the issue of anti-independence that Beijing perceives some common interest with Washington. Although many Chinese are still deeply sceptical that the US would be willing to see China formally unified with Taiwan, they are convinced that Washington does not want to see Taiwan move too far towards de jure independence. It is not necessarily because Washington supports Beijing’s long-term goal of unification, but rather because Taiwan independence would drag the US into a disastrous military confrontation with China. The prospect of an armed conflict in the Taiwan Straits is particularly undesirable especially as the US is mired in Iraq. President Bush was reportedly annoyed by Chen’s envelope pushing before the presidential election. He has allegedly since developed a personal distain for the Taiwanese leader.
In this regard, the recent comments by senior State Department officials on the Taiwan issue certainly please the ears of Chinese leaders. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, on various occasions explicitly endorsed Taiwan as part of China, showed an understanding of unification as China’s national aspiration, and laying out the limitations of the US commitment to defend Taiwan, departing from the traditional strategic ambiguity on these issues. These remarks are a reflection of consensus within the Bush administration rather than a slip of the tongue, and serve to reassure Chinese leadership that on the anti-independence issue, the US and China share the goal of reining in Chen Shui-bian. Obviously encouraged by Washington’s signals, Beijing concluded that the current US preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East and conflict-averse mentality in the Taiwan Strait provides a “window of opportunity” for China to establish a legal threshold to stop Chen before his de-sinicization crusade reaches a point of no return.
Furthermore, Beijing’s preemptive move points to a painful realisation that the Taiwan issue is not just a political and military battle, but also a legalistic wrangle. Ironically this is a result of learning from Washington and Taipei. In its dealing with China, Washington often put Beijing on the defensive by evoking the Taiwan Relations Act, domestic legislation that obligates the US to help Taiwan in case of a mainland military assault. Beijing witnessed with dismay America’s decreasing adherence to the three communiqués in the US Chinese relationship. Most American policy makers deem TRA as more important and binding than the three communiqués. The law of referendum passed by Taiwan last year also alarmed Beijing. Although the current referendum law does not cover issues related to unification or independence, it could always be revised for that purpose. In contrast, Beijing has only rhetoric and policy statements such as “Jiang’s eight points,” which pale in comparison to the laws. Another purpose of the anti-secession law therefore is to level the playing field among the three sides to wage this so-called “legal war” on Taiwan.
Some pundits in Washington and Taipei jumped the gun in declaring the anti-secession law a provocative action by China to change the cross-strait status quo. In one sense, it is a fair assessment. However, one should not forget that this is the logical consequence of Chen’ Shui-bian’s agenda of “making a new constitution through referendum”. Indeed, crafted discreetly, the anti-secession law could function to preserve rather disrupt the status quo, by creating a new triangle of checks and balance with each side possessing a legal “lethal weapon” to punish another’s misbehaviour. Washington could use TRA to deter the mainland’s unprovoked use of force against Taiwan. Beijing could evoke the anti-secession law to prevent Taiwan from slipping out of reach. And finally Taipei could use the referendum law as a last resort to legalise the separation from China if Beijing treats the Taiwanese people too harshly. Thus, a fragile but viable status quo might be sustained in the Taiwan Straits for sometime to come. While this is not ideal, for the present it is in the interests of all three parties involved.