A secession law being drafted by China could provide the legal basis for using force against Taiwan, but it is unlikely to include a clear deadline for when unification must take place, analysts said yesterday.
Top legislators will debate the law at a key meeting in Beijing next week, reflecting growing concern in the Chinese leadership about its ability to halt and reverse Taiwan's perceived drift toward independence, they argued.
"The reason it is put forward now is that the situation in the Taiwan Strait requires it," said Wu Nengyuan (吳能遠), a scholar from the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences and one of China's leading experts on Taiwan.
Sketchy reports in the Chinese media about the law have not mentioned Taiwan by name, but said the law is to "promote reunification," a phrase used only to refer to Taiwan.
Chinese political scientists have said it could make it illegal for Taiwan to declare independence and might create more leeway for Beijing to take the nation by force or pressure it to accept unification.
The timing of the discussion of the draft law has been carefully chosen, following the legislative elections that kept independence supporters in a minority in Legislative Yuan, weakening President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), observers said.
"Chinese authorities didn't want to release this before the election, because they didn't want to be seen as exerting pressure, which would have created a backlash," said Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), a China watcher at City University of Hong Kong.
"Now after the election is a good time to do it. The general purpose is to clarify the baseline and exert pressure on the Chen administration," he said.
Drawing a line in the sand may be considered practical from Beijing's point of view, but other governments with a stake in the region could consider it a dangerous move with the potential to further aggravate tensions.
The US State Department Friday warned against upsetting the balance in the Taiwan Strait, using words reminiscent of a year ago when President George W. Bush advised Chen against unilateral moves.
One proposed version submitted to the legislature gives Taiwan a deadline of Dec. 31, 2020 to agree to unification and give up any independence aspirations or face war, according to Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV's Web site.
Although the 2020 date has been mulled before in the Hong Kong media, analysts doubted the final version of the law would really include it.
"It's impossible that China will impose a deadline. It will mean a constraint on themselves," said Kou Chien-wen (寇健文), a political scientist at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.
Wu Nengyuan argued that whatever the law eventually says, it should say it clearly so no misunderstanding is possible about China's determination to go to war if need be.
"On the question of using force, it should be very clear-cut," he said. "If it's too vague, it could create opportunities for Taiwan independence forces."