Fri, Mar 04, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Much ado about 'anti-secession'

By Ralph Cossa

It is not uncommon in the US to condemn movies we haven't seen or criticize books we haven't read based solely on their titles or our worst fears regarding their presumed or rumored contents. It seems our compatriots in Taiwan have adopted this same trait.

I'm talking, of course, about the critical reaction in Taipei -- and in some circles in Washington -- to Beijing's proposed "anti-secession" law, which is slated to be enacted by the soon-to-be-convened National People's Congress (NPC). While the text is yet to be seen, this has not prevented many in both capitals from severely condemning the legislation.

It is difficult to be too critical of this tendency, having been guilty of it myself. During a recent trip to Beijing I found myself expressing concerns over the implications of the legislation, regardless of its contents. The big question is, "Why now?" At a time when there finally seems to be some modest progress in cross-strait relations -- the unprecedented direct flights between Taiwan and China during the Lunar New Year holiday period and the sending of two senior Chinese representatives to the memorial service for veteran cross-strait negotiator Koo Chen-fu (辜振甫) -- why does Beijing think it necessary to pursue it?

The simple answer seems to be continuing deep distrust of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The legislation had its genesis in Chen's surprise re-election in March last year and received added impetus last fall when Beijing's experts -- like most Taiwan-watchers, not to mention Chen himself -- were predicting victory for the pan-green camp in December's legislative elections. When the outcome was a pleasant surprise -- from Beijing's perspective, at least -- the new law had already gained too much momentum to be abandoned. Besides, Beijing interlocutors argued, the results of the legislative elections, 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. His tactics might change, but not his objective.

The main Chinese "concession" in response to the legislative elections was to rename the bill. The "Unification Law" -- a title which implied an aggressive and impatient outlook -- became anti-secession legislation aimed merely at "preserving the status quo."

Since US President George W. Bush has repeatedly stated that he opposes any unilateral change to 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 -- and a willingness to throw the Bush administration's logic back at Washington.

The counter-arguments -- 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 the legislation more effectively, or make it less inflammatory, then we are all ears; but if you try to talk us out of introducing the new law, "save your breath!"

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