China's national congress unveiled its highly anticipated anti-secession bill Tuesday, staking out the right to use military force against Taiwan and making it clear that Beijing will brook no dissent on its claims of sovereignty over the island.
The proposal, expected to be easily approved by the National People's Congress on Monday, suggests that efforts by Taiwan to formalize a separate identity from the mainland could trigger a military response - which was described as a "last resort."
Yet the bill is oddly timed, coming on the heels of a period of improved China-Taiwan relations. In January, the first direct air links since 1949 between the two countries allowed Chinese and Taiwanese to shuttle between the two places for Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year.
Commentators and politicians on both sides of the Taiwan Straits Tuesday weighed whether China really is setting the stage for an invasion of what it considers a renegade province. Many speculate that China is merely turning up the heat on what it sees as an increasingly independence-minded Taiwan since President Chen Shui-bian was first elected in 2000.
"I don't think [Beijing] will go to war," says Cao Jing Xing, a prominent political commentator with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix InfoNews Channel. "I think they want to go back to the status quo."
That status quo, known as the "one China" policy, has since left Taiwan free to run its own affairs, but without the legal standing of an independent nation.
China has vigorously protested efforts by President Chen to amend Taiwan's constitution or hold referendums. Momentum for these efforts has slowed following the electoral defeat of Chen's party in last year's parliamentary elections.
But NPC officials said the antisecession legislation is necessary to give China the option to invade Taiwan if it does not shut down the still-potent proindependence movement.
"In recent years ... the Taiwan authorities have intensified their 'Taiwan independence' activities aimed at separating Taiwan from China," said Wang Zhaoguo, a vice chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC), who introduced the bill.
Mr. Wang said military action could be triggered by "any means" of Taiwan secession, "or [if] major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or [if] possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted."
Wang also insinuated that the law's timing was related to Taiwan's barely defeated independence referendum of 2004 and other moves seen as bold strokes toward true Taiwan independence. Chinese officials have said the antisecession law is a direct response to talk in Taiwan of an "antiannexation" law aimed at China.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the proposal was released the very same day the NPC formally approved the end of former President Jiang Zemin's tenure as head of the Chinese military. Thus the law sends a clear signal that the use of force in Taiwan remains on the table under President Hu Jintao, the newly anointed Army head.
The law is bound to affect Sino-US relations. The US has tacitly pledged to defend the status quo. With this draft law, Beijing is demanding that Taiwan acquiesce to China's claims of sovereignty. The remaining unknowns include how Washington would react to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and whether the expected lifting of a European arms embargo against China could raise the stakes even higher.
A recent survey by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily showed that nearly two-thirds of Chinese believe the state of Sino-US relations depends on what happens with Taiwan.
With a few interludes of high-profile war games and tough talk, most of the past 50-plus years have been spent in a stalemate as Taiwan held the economic and international political upper hand, with China in control of the land and population mass. As China has taken on global economic and political significance, it has eclipsed Taiwan. The island has also shifted its focus somewhat to developing a separate national identity, casting aside its old claims of being the "real China."
Chinese Communist Party officials have bristled at criticism that the law is unusually timed. An NPC spokesman told a press conference late last week that claims the law will damage cross-Strait relations are "groundless." He said the law is meant to protect China's sovereignty, even though the NPC is being asked to approve a 12.6 percent increase in the country's military budget - seen as another warning signal to Taiwan.
In outlining the law, Wang said any military force against Taiwan would only target "pro-independence" forces and not harm "Taiwan compatriots." He also promised China would protect the Taiwanese living on the mainland.
"Using nonpeaceful means to stop secession in defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity would be our last resort when all our efforts for a peaceful reunification should prove futile," he said.
In Taipei, reaction was far different. The Mainland Affairs Council said the legislation "gives the [Chinese] military a blank check to invade Taiwan" and made plain Beijing's "attempt to use force to annex Taiwan." Thousands have massed in protests against the law.