China's Law On Taiwan Backfires
Anti-Secession Measure Hurts Efforts Abroad
By Edward Cody
BEIJING, March 23 -- China has paid a price abroad for enacting its controversial anti-secession law, spoiling a strategy for relations with Taiwan, undercutting a drive to end Europe's arms embargo and reinforcing unease over the growth in Chinese military power.
Although the law did little more than codify long-standing policy, Taiwan and countries around the world have focused on the vow to use "non-peaceful means" to prevent Taiwanese independence. In the 10 days since the legislation passed, this focus has emphasized the image of a China willing to risk war across the Taiwan Strait, frustrating Chinese diplomatic efforts to depict the nation's rise as non-threatening.
In pushing forward with the law, President Hu Jintao and his government were weighing domestic considerations as well as foreign policy. Hu, who analysts say is still solidifying his power, was eager to be seen at home as a tough leader on the emotionally charged Taiwan issue. Work on the law began last fall, they noted, as Hu was taking over as military leader from former president Jiang Zemin.
Hu and other leaders have portrayed the new law as a needed check on Taiwan's independence activists -- including President Chen Shui-bian. Without the law to brake him, officials have said, Chen could take one step too many, producing a military conflict nobody wants.
When China began talking about the law last fall, the analysts recalled, Chen was announcing plans to make several changes regarded here as highly provocative. They included changing the name of state-owned enterprises to emphasize "Taiwan" instead of "Republic of China" and inserting the name "Taiwan" in official correspondence from the Foreign Ministry.
Against that background, the Chinese government professed surprise at the degree of negative international reaction to the law during meetings Sunday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to sources with knowledge of the talks. The State Department publicly criticized the law as unhelpful. While in Beijing, the sources said, Rice urged leaders to take conciliatory steps to improve the atmosphere soured by the new legislation.
President Bush and other U.S. leaders already were warning that China's fast-paced military modernization risked tipping the balance of power around Taiwan, putting the United States at greater peril if it intervened to defend the self-governing island. With the anti-secession law's threat of military force, those warnings gained urgency; they were repeated several times by Rice during her Asian tour.
Maintaining smooth relations with the United States has become a pillar of China's diplomacy. But the anti-secession law, by feeding the fears of those in Washington who see China as a military adversary, seemed to push relations in the opposite direction.
The threat of force undermined a similar campaign to portray China in neighboring Asian countries as a reliable neighbor whose peaceful rise is not to be feared. This effort, underway for several years, has gained wide acceptance, particularly in Southeast Asia, as China's booming economy and expanding trade give it greater influence in the region.
The image of a peacefully growing nation also was important in China's drive to gain a lifting of Europe's arms embargo. The Beijing government seemed to be on the verge of success despite U.S. opposition. But since the Taiwan law passed March 14, the atmosphere has changed: U.S. arguments have gained new force, and the consensus in Europe for lifting the ban has unraveled.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said Tuesday that there should be no connection between the new law and the European arms embargo. But in European capitals, the link was already made.
The new law also clouded what had been a period of improving atmospherics between China and Taiwan, putting off indefinitely several proposals for better airline and commercial links.
Since a setback in Dec. 11 legislative elections, Chen had played down his most confrontational plans, including the name change for state enterprises. China and Taiwan then agreed on direct charter flights for Chinese New Year visits last month, and China had proposed talks about more flights this spring.
A Taiwan specialist in Beijing who was involved in drafting the anti-secession law said Hu's government had concluded from the Dec. 11 election results that many Taiwanese, even those who may support independence, were tiring of Chen's confrontational style, fearful that it could lead to war. As a result, he said, the government decided to cultivate a friendly image on the island, proposing direct cargo flights to help Taiwan's businesses and increased fruit and vegetable imports to help Taiwanese farms.
But the anti-secession law was working its way through the bureaucracy.
Since its passage, Taiwan has halted action on the initiatives, which Chen qualified as "petty" in the face of what his Democratic Progressive Party called a trigger for war in the new law. Chen's group also has announced plans for a million-man march Saturday to dramatize Taiwanese anger at the law. Opinion polls on the island, meanwhile, indicate increased support for the president's views.