The House of War?
China's anti-secession law for Taiwan
10 March 2005
There may be less to China's sabre-rattling over Taiwan than meets the eye
DETERMINED efforts by China to convince the world that its economic and military rise poses no threat are hindered by its penchant for secrecy and an occasional tendency to bow to nationalist sentiment. This week, China's rubber-stamp parliament has artfully combined both tendencies in its discussion of a still secret law that is supposedly aimed at deterring Taiwan from asserting its independence. To Taiwan this looks ominous, but the law might reveal little more than that China is trying to placate its nationalists while continuing to sit on its hands.
For China's president, Hu Jintao, the annual session of the legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), which began on March 5th, marks the final formal stage of his protracted induction as top leader. Nearly three years after his appointment as party chief (followed by president in 2003 and head of the party's powerful military commission last year), he will be “elected” head of the state's military commission—a body that exists only on paper—on March 13th. But if the head of the CIA, Porter Goss, was correct in his testimony last month that China's “military modernisation and military build-up is tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait”, Mr Hu appears in no hurry to use this advantage.
He has enough to worry about at home. In his annual report to the NPC, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, spoke of the need to “forestall and properly deal with mass disturbances”—concerning what he did not say, but widespread corruption, unemployment and brutality by rural officials have fuelled a surge in the number of protests. Mr Wen spoke positively of the government's efforts to prevent overheating in the economy, but expressed concerns that inflationary pressure remained “quite great”.
Sorting out succession arrangements in Hong Kong following the resignation of its chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, is another priority. On March 10th, Mr Tung finally ended more than ten days of what was doubtless Chinese-imposed secrecy surrounding his departure. Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's far more popular chief secretary, will take over—though for how long and by what arrangements is a subject of fierce debate in the territory. With all this going on, China's clear preference seems to be to keep Taiwan on the back burner for as long as possible.
The “anti-secession law” will almost certainly be passed by the NPC (and at last made public) on March 14th as the legislative session ends. But a description of its contents delivered by the NPC's vice-chairman, Wang Zhaoguo, this week suggests that the worst fears of Taiwan, and its backer America, may not materialise.
There was no mention of any clauses that would commit China to using force in response to any clearly specified action by Taiwan. Indeed, unusually, Mr Wang's statement avoided the word “force”, except once to say it had not been ruled out. Instead it threatened “non-peaceful means”, which could involve coercive measures short of an actual attack.
The potential triggers for such action were left vague: a move by Taiwan to cause “the fact” of Taiwan's secession from China, “major incidents” involving Taiwan's secession, or the event that possibilities for a peaceful reunification had been “completely exhausted”. The leeway these conditions provide for China to interpret events as it wishes is unsettling for Taiwan. But they also give China plenty of room not to go to war.
Five years ago China issued a “white paper” threatening force if Taiwan kept on resisting entering into reunification talks. That reportedly does not appear in the new law. Instead, the new formulation that efforts to achieve reunification should be “completely exhausted” would appear to make it somewhat harder for China to justify conflict.
So why bother with a law and why make its drafting so secretive? Worryingly for China's neighbours, the Communist Party sometimes feels the need to pander to nationalist sentiment. The anti-secession law is being rolled out despite signs of an easing of tensions between China and Taiwan in recent weeks, as President Hu himself acknowledged last weekend. There have been unusually positive remarks from both sides recently about the possibility of establishing air cargo links across the strait. The anti-secession law is likely to make relations frostier again and will certainly do nothing to improve China's image in the minds of deeply suspicious Taiwanese.
Neither will a plan, unveiled in this year's budget presented to the NPC, to increase military spending by 12.6% to around $30 billion. Actual spending is far higher than this, since the official figure does not include much of China's weapons purchases from abroad or spending on research and development.
Demands in China for a law aimed at keeping Taiwan in check have grown in the past couple of years in response to plans by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to revise the island's constitution. Although Mr Chen denied it, China feared he intended to change the island's name or territorial definition.
For Mr Hu, who is still consolidating his grip on power, it might have been risky to ignore these calls altogether. But keeping the law's contents secret until its promulgation may have been aimed at limiting debate in China. Secrecy has also spread unease in Taiwan and America, thus helping to create the impression in China that the law is tougher than it is. But the law Mr Hu has crafted should avoid serious harm to cross-strait economic ties, which, after all, are vital to China's coastal regions.