China's New "Anti-Secession Law" Escalates Tensions in the TaiwanStrait

Report Asia

China's New "Anti-Secession Law" Escalates Tensions in the TaiwanStrait

December 21, 2004 6 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

If the Bush Administration is truly concerned about maintaining the "status quo" in the Taiwan Strait, it must treat China's new propaganda campaign for an "anti-secession law" as a dangerous escalation of tensions. Washington must take just as firm a stand against the proposed law as it did last year against Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's "referendum of protest" against China's missile threat. Moreover, the Administration must cease justifying the continued U.S.-Taiwan defense relationship solely on the basis of the Taiwan Relations Act. Congress should display its concern with a resolution or by contacting the Administration and the Chinese Embassy to register protest.


Standing idly by while a large one-party authoritarian state declares its intention to invade and capture one of the Asia's most vibrant and dynamic democracies would signal to Asia that China's brand of authoritarianism is the wave of the future and the United States can no longer be counted on to defend political pluralism in the region. The Bush Administration has said that its policy is to inspire and encourage the growth of democracy. If that has not changed, the Administration must register its displeasure with China's proposed law.


What Is the "Anti-Secession Law"?

On Friday, December 17, 2004, the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) announced its intention to include a new "anti-secession law" in its legislative agenda for the March session. Draft language for the law will likely be published in time for consideration at the upcoming December 25-29 NPC Standing Committee session.


But this law should not be treated as legislation so much as propaganda. Press reports indicate that the law will oblige the Chinese military to invade Taiwan immediately upon some future Taiwanese "declaration of independence," but China's existing National Defense Law and its legislation governing national territory already require that the military defend China's homeland. One draft of a "unification law" (a precursor to this "anti-secession law") touted by professor Yu Yuanzhou at Wuhan University even mandates that the People's Liberation Army immediately attack the Taiwan-held offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu as soon as the Army is able to do so-and the attack "would not be limited to conventional weapons." This kind of nonsense passes for rational legislative discourse in China but should not be humored by either the Administration or Congress.


China's Agenda

This so-called "anti-secession law" has only two purposes: to serve as propaganda and as diplomatic leverage against the U.S. relationship with Taiwan.


As propaganda, the legislation readies the Chinese people for war with Taiwan, and as a diplomatic lever it is to be trotted out and exhibited to Americans whenever the United States points to its obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act to "maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan".[1]


The Chinese leadership believes that its bellicosity has already prepared Washington for a military move. In December 2003, according to CNN's respected China analyst Willy Lam, a senior Politburo member said that President George W. Bush's "unambiguous opposition to attempts by Taipei to change the status quo" was such that if "we were to respond militarily, the U.S. can't raise objections let alone interfere." In May, another noted China Scholar, Bonnie Glaser, warned that the U.S. was sending a dangerous message to Beijing. "Some Chinese even believe," she reported, "that there is sufficient concern in Washington about Chen's actions and his future agenda that the U.S. may acquiesce in a limited use of force by the PLA-for example, to seize an offshore island, temporarily impose a limited blockade, or fire a lone missile at a military target on Taiwan."


The American response to China's increasingly strident threats to launch a military attack against Taiwan has been defensive. As recently as October 25, Secretary of State Colin Powell stammered that "the Chinese leaders who I spoke to today said that [Taiwan] is an internal matter for us to determine, us to decide, and I appreciate their position, but nevertheless, that build-up creates a degree of tension and instability across the Straits and puts pressure on the Taiwanese side to seek additional weaponry. And under our law, we have an obligation to see to their self-defense needs."


Powell should have pointed out that the United States does not agree that this is simply a domestic affair. As the Taiwan Relations Act states, any attempt to coerce Taiwan militarily would be regarded as a threat to the peace and security of the region and therefore comes within the ambit of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.


Unfortunately, the State Department's response to China's latest announcement has been equally defensive. On December 17, the State Department Spokesman begged the question, saying, "We have not seen the legislation, had a chance to study it, so we are not in a position to comment in any detail," adding only that "both sides should really focus on engaging in dialogue, try to peacefully resolve their differences." This is in marked contrast to the State Department's rather pointed complaints in 2003 about Taiwan's referendum against China's missile threat-despite having no text then either.


Steps for the Administration

1. Forcefully declare U.S. opposition to any unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. President Bush should declare explicitly that China's 'anti-secession legislation' indicates that China may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which the United States opposes. This would be a mirror image of the comments President Bush made in December 2003 about Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's referendum protesting China's missiles.


2. Be candid about U.S. interests in Taiwan and the American commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. Although the State Department seems abashed that the U.S. helps defend democratic Taiwan, the Defense Department is eloquent. The formal U.S. position on Taiwan should echo Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman's statement to the House International Relations Committee on April 21, 2004:


The President's National Security Strategy, published in September 2002, calls for "building a balance of power that favors freedom." Taiwan's evolution into a true multi-party democracy over the past decade is proof of the importance of America's commitment to Taiwan's defense. It strengthens American resolve to see Taiwan's democracy grow and prosper.


3. Reiterate that U.S. policy requires, to quote the Taiwan Relations Act, "that the issues between Beijing and Taiwan be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan."


Steps for Congress

1. Consider joint or separate resolutions condemning China's proposed legislation as a provocation that will heighten tensions in the region. In addition, such resolutions should note that, as stated in the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States would consider aggression against Taiwan a threat to international peace and security within the meaning of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.


2. Members or their senior staff should meet with PRC embassy representatives to convey these concerns and caution against the contemplated legislation.


3. Members or their senior staff should emphasize their concerns to senior levels of the State Department and NSC. They should insist that the executive branch convey these concerns forcefully to senior levels of the PRC.


4. Members should inform "TECRO," Taiwan's proto-embassy in Washington, of the action being taken in order to calm reactions on Taiwan.


John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Section 2(b)(6), The Taiwan Relations Act, P.L. 96-8, approved April 10, 1979.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow