News that China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee has placed an “anti-secession law” on the agenda for next March’s NPC session raises the question, “Don’t China’s lawmakers have anything better to do?” Indeed they do, but as the Argentine colonels reasoned in 1982, it’s clearly easier to whip up national opinion over small islands like the Falklands–or Taiwan, in China’s case–than to solve the country’s problems. Beijing’s top Taiwan-affairs director, Chen Yunlin, was in Washington, D.C., last week to lobby the Bush administration and Congress on the absolute necessity of such a law, and the fact that Taiwanese independence is an existential threat to China’s “core national security interests.” (This, despite the fact that Taiwan has been de facto independent since 1949, so whatever China’s “core” interests are, they have successfully kept for the past half century.)
Although the actual text of the draft “law” has yet to be published, it appears to be a watered-down version of a truly fanatical “Unification Law” advocated by at least one Chinese professor, Yu Yuanzhou of Wuhan University, whose proposed legislation requires the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to attack Taiwan as soon as it is able. Yu’s legislation, which has been circulating on the Internet for over two years, calls for the PLA to immediately start bombarding Quemoy and Matsu–and it “would not be limited to conventional weapons.”
Sadly, the kind of nonsense that Prof. Yu touts via the Internet passes for rational legislative discourse in China, and last May, during a tea party for visiting Premier Wen Jiabao with Chinese expatriates in London, an elderly Chinese demanded the premier pass such a law soon. The flustered premier humored the old man, “Your view on unification of the motherland is very important, very important. We will seriously consider it.” But before the thoughtful premier had finished his session, his traveling propaganda entourage had it on all the Chinese newswires, and “unification law” became official policy.
Since then, Chinese propaganda departments have changed the name from “unification law” to “anti-secession law”–not (as some in the Western press have speculated) as a gesture of moderation, but to avoid any misunderstanding that China might not already be “unified.” Perish the thought! No, Taiwan is an integral part of China illegally struggling to be “independent.” Therefore, Taiwan is already unified with China, so “anti-secession” it is.
One need not wait until March 5 to see the first draft (which, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party, will also be the final draft) of the law to know that its goal is not “anti-secession” and that it is not even a “law.” It is clear from the official Chinese media that the “law” is supposed to authorize China’s military to invade Taiwan immediately upon some future Taiwanese “declaration of independence.” But both China’s existing National Defense Law and its legislation governing national territory already require that the military defend China’s homeland. This new legislation, as with most exercises in Chinese foreign-policy legislation, is a propaganda tool designed for two audiences.
First, it readies the Chinese people for war with Taiwan, and second, it will be trotted out and exhibited as a diplomatic lever whenever Americans point to the U.S. obligation–under Section 2(b)(6) of our own domestic legislation, 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.”
As such, this proposed Chinese legislation is highly destabilizing. Beijing’s leaders believe their bellicosity has already prepared Washington for a Chinese military attack against Taiwan. In December 2003, according to CNN’s respected China analyst, Willy Lam, a senior politburo member declared 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 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned that the U.S. was sending a dangerous message to Beijing. “Some Chinese even believe,” she reported, “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.” Yet Chinese leaders still think they need a “law” to legitimize their threats.
On the other hand, American leaders get very defensive in the face of China’s increasingly strident threats to launch a military attack against Taiwan. Rather than articulate U.S. interests, they lamely point to the Taiwan Relations Act as somehow tying their unwilling hands. 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 [China] to determine . . . 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.” In essence, the State Department’s response to China’s demands to halt our defense relationship with Taiwan is to claim that U.S. law requires it.
The Chinese, unfamiliar with a true “rule of law,” are now prepared to respond with their own “law,” one that probably will say, “China shall wage war against an independent Taiwan.” This, notwithstanding that Taiwan is already independent in every way–including by its own insistence–and that Taiwanese have been carrying on their own existence separate from China’s for over a century (if one doesn’t count the three postwar years of what was legally a Chinese “military occupation” of a former Japanese colonial territory). If the U.S. administration is ruled by principle instead of craven expedience, it will respond to this Chinese ploy with the kind of forceful declaration usually reserved for Taiwan’s leaders. So, President Bush should declare explicitly, in terms identical to his jibe at Taiwan’s democratically elected president last December, that China’s proposed anti-secession legislation “indicates that China may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.” This would be a nice bookend to President Bush’s overreaction to Taiwan President Chen’s rather benign effort last December to legislate a “referendum” of protest against China’s undeniable missile threat to the island.
But above all, the United States must be candid with the American people, with our democratic allies and friends in Asia, and above all with the Chinese dictatorship, about the American commitment to help Taiwan defend itself. Although the State Department seems abashed that the U.S. helps defend democratic Taiwan, it could find an eloquent statement of U.S. policy over at the Defense Department. Last April 21, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman explained to the House International Relations Committee that “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.” That sums it up nicely.
If Chen Yun Lin can take a healthy dose of reality back to Beijing from his Washington visits, perhaps China’s National People’s Congress can begin to focus on China’s real problems–ones like the vast official corruption at all levels of government and party, rural poverty, the collapse of public healthcare, the financial crisis, unsafe mines, AIDS, and the wholesale pollution of its waters and earth.
–John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.