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 Taiwan's secession has proved anything but routine. It raised the stakes for Taiwan'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 US 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 law, China's leaders did little more than attempt to reinforce their position that "non-peaceful" (ie, military) measures would serve strictly as a last resort -- which had already been assumed anyway.
Last December's legislative elections delivered an unexpected defeat for President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the Democratic Progressive Party, but was also seen as a positive development for relations with China. Indeed, the start of this year saw some movement on improved ties, with the introduction of a successful Lunar New Year cross-strait direct charter flights program. This gave rise to serious discussion about instituting permanent direct air links. Now, in the aftermath of the Anti-Secession Law, the future of the charter-flights scheme looks bleak.
Opinion polls in Taiwan reflect public dismay over the Chinese legislation, and this negative sentiment will raise the pressure on Chen. There are now serious concerns that the hard-line faction in the pan-green camp will seize this issue as a stick with which to beat Chen.
One of the more frustrating elements of the Anti-Secession Law is the fact that it is an entirely unnecessary provocation. The absence of laws mandating force to block separatist activity has never stopped Chinese authorities from brutally persecuting individuals and groups who have called for an independent Tibet or Xinjiang. There is thus little reason to believe that a more explicitly assertive stance is necessary for dealing with the "splittist" government in Taipei. Missile tests, People's Liberation Army military exercises and threatening rhetoric have been sufficient deterrents until now.
China justifies the law in terms of clarifying policy and establishing a legal premise for invading Taiwan. In practice, however, the construction of legal foundations could weaken China's operational flexibility when responding to a Taiwanese move toward independence. The law of unintended consequences dictates that this effort to deny ambiguity to Taiwanese activists could backfire, and instead leave China's leaders without room to maneuver if Taiwan does attempt to revise the status quo.
While outright military conflict is still considered unlikely, the combination of China's vague "red lines" and non-specific threats will certainly raise the likelihood of miscalculation and misinterpretation on both sides.
More broadly, the fact that the Anti-Secession Law was introduced at all comes as a major disappointment to those who had been impressed by the apparent sophistication and skillfulness of recent Chinese diplomacy. Coming in the same week as China's poorly handled removal of Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), the Anti-Secession Law episode illustrates that Beijing's PR savvy has its limits and that Taiwan will remain an emotional and divisive thorn in the side of Sino-US relations.