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China's Anti-Secession Law Boomerangs

The passage of any law by China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress is always a mere formality. But the controversial legislation to outlaw Taiwanese secession has proved anything but routine. It raised the stakes for the island’s pro-independence camp and increased the risk of a cross-Strait military conflict.

The anti-secession law’s vague language and attempt at softened wording – perhaps geared toward mollifying foreign critics – paradoxically increases rather than decreases the likelihood that China and the United States could be unwittingly and unwillingly drawn into an avoidable military conflict. By failing to clearly delineate presumed or potential “red lines” for Taiwan, the law leaves open the possibility of substantial miscalculation or misinterpretation.

Despite several weeks of intense US pressure to soften - or even retract - the proposed law, China’s leaders did little more than attempt to reinforce their position that “non-peaceful” (i.e., military) measures would serve strictly as a last resort - which had already been assumed anyway. The Bush administration’s reaction was uncharacteristically blunt, with its call for “Beijing to reconsider the passage of the law'” – a rather directly worded intrusion into what China considers to be an internal matter.

Taiwan’s December 2004 legislative elections had delivered an unexpected defeat for Chen and his ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, and the pro-independence camp’s failure to secure a legislative majority was seen as a positive development for relations with the mainland. Indeed, the start of 2005 saw some movement on improved ties, with the introduction of a hugely successful lunar new year charter-flights program. This gave rise to serious discussion about instituting permanent direct air links to aid bilateral trade flow. Now, in the aftermath of the anti-secession law, the future of the charter-flights scheme looks bleak.