With his second inauguration looming, President Bush has his hands full in the Middle East and with ambitious plans for domestic reform during his second term. In this context, Beijing's recently announced plans for anti-secession legislation is particularly unwelcome.
The content of the anticipated legislation remains uncertain, and its motivation and timing are puzzling. According to letters sent by the Chinese Embassy in Washington to key members of Congress, it is intended to "give full expression to the strong resolve of the Chinese people of never allowing the 'Taiwan independence' forces to cut off Taiwan from the rest of China under any name or by any means." Or as a pro-Beijing daily in Hong Kong put it, "It will leave 'Taiwan independence' forces with no room for ambiguity to exploit."
This suggests that the legislation's main aim will be further to deter President Chen Shui-bian's salami-slicing separatist tactics. An additional motivation may be to further energize U.S. efforts to restrain Chen in order to head off a future crisis. And, to be sure, the new legislative initiative may be attributable to internal political forces.
But why now, within weeks of President Chen's setback in the Dec. 11 legislative elections? One can only guess.
Perhaps Beijing chalked up the Democratic Progressive Party's difficulties in the elections to their own martial rhetoric, and decided to pile on new forms of political pressure. Perhaps it has concluded that despite the election results, Chen will still move aggressively on his stated intention to revise Taiwan's constitution -- thus moving a step closer to independence -- before the conclusion of his term in 2008. Perhaps it deduced from the pointed warnings directed at Chen by senior U.S. officials during the recent Taiwanese elections that Washington will now tolerate blunter threats to reinforce the People's Republic of China's "red lines."
Whatever the suppositions behind Beijing's plan for anti-secessionist legislation, they probably underestimate the substantial risks involved. Such legislation will doubtless alienate many Taiwanese voters, perhaps contributing inadvertently to the evolution of a growing sense of Taiwan's separate political identity, and producing wider legislative support in Taipei for major arms purchases from the United States.
It could also set off an action/reaction cycle with Taiwan that would undermine any possibility of reviving a serious cross-Straits dialogue. While Beijing's planned legislation may be its "response" to Chen's frequent references to constitutional referenda, it is as likely to encourage such referenda as obstruct them. It will upset many Americans, and it will galvanize the Taiwan lobby in America to stir up unhelpful resolutions in Congress when it reconvenes.
The greatest risk, perhaps, is that this could exacerbate the dangerous remilitarization of the Taiwan issue that has emerged since 1995, marked by explicit People's Liberation Army deployments and training aimed at Taiwan contingencies on the one hand, and escalating U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, combined with closer cooperation between the United States and Taiwan's defense establishment, on the other.
To a disturbing degree, this process seems driven less by policy considerations than by the parochial interests of the PLA for enhanced equipment and budgets, and by the attractiveness of the lucrative Taiwan arms market for U.S. military suppliers. Not surprisingly, this evolution is convincing pessimists on each side that confrontation is simply a question of time, despite the disaster it would represent for all parties.
Stabilizing this situation will demand the Bush administration's attention, despite other urgent preoccupations. Stability in the Straits, moreover, is an achievable goal if good sense prevails on all sides. Realistic leaders in Beijing recognize that there is no short-term solution.
With Taiwan in full control of its domestic circumstances, no country whose support is necessary for its independence to be meaningful views such independence as worth the cost of conflict with Beijing. The growing economic interdependence between China and Taiwan also raises the ante of any such conflict for them both.
To be viable, a stabilization arrangement cannot negate the "one China" principle, but it should leave open the parameters of an eventual settlement. Its goal should be an end to explicit PRC threats to use force against Taiwan and of overt preparations for military contingencies in the Strait, supplemented by reduced missile deployments opposite Taiwan; reduced U.S. military sales to Taipei consistent with the lowered threat level; more international "space" for Taiwan in exchange for an indefinite halt to actions aimed at enhancing Taiwan's international position; augmented links across the Taiwan Strait; and cross-strait talks aimed at addressing immediate problems and encouraging the growth of greater mutual confidence.
At a moment when we are entering a new year, let us hope that progress toward stabilization can be achieved.