Global Policy Forum

US Warns China Over Latest Challenge Towards Taiwan


By Rupert Cornwell

March 15, 2005

China's new "anti-secession" law authorising the use of force against Taiwan has sent ripples of alarm throughout the region and beyond, drawing a stern reaction from the US, and casting new uncertainty on European plans to resume arms sales to Beijing. The measure, passed unanimously yesterday by the rubber-stamp Chinese parliament, says that the mainland should use force against Taiwan if the island secedes or "if possibilities for peaceful reunification are completely exhausted".

Even though the text does not specify exactly what China would consider as "secession", the law drew an angry response in Taipei, where President Chen Shui-bian said it would create a backlash, and "only end up driving both sides of the straits further apart". Already it has prompted a rare show of unity between the Taiwanese government and the feuding opposition parties. The law, said Joseph Wu, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council and Taiwan's top China policymaker, "violates our fundamental rights" and had caused "utter resentment".

Taiwan separated from China when the Communists took power on the mainland in 1949, but Beijing insists that the island, with a population of 23 million, is part of its territory. Although the US recognises only the government in Beijing, it sells arms to Taiwan, and is committed to defending it against outside attack.

In Washington, the Bush administration issued a sharp warning that the move threatened to undo recent improvements in relations between Beijing and Taipei, and reiterated its opposition to the use of force to resolve the issue. Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, described the adoption of the law - which states that mainland China will use "non-peaceful means and other necessary measures" to protect national sovereignty - as "unfortunate". The US opposed any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally, he added.

The worry in Washington is that Taiwan will retaliate, perhaps by edging closer to formalising a de facto independence that already includes separate elections, its own constitution and diplomatic relations with some countries. This in turn could be the trigger for a Chinese military move, leading to a showdown between the US and Beijing. "We don't hope for foreign intervention, but we are not afraid of it," Wen Jiabao, China's Prime Minister, said after the law was passed, by a majority of 2,896 to nil, with two abstentions.

Such a prospect horrifies a region already on edge over North Korea's nuclear programme. In Tokyo, the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, urged both sides to work for a peaceful solution of their disagreement, to avoid "negative impact". A showdown between the US and China would oblige Japan and other countries, such as Australia, to choose between the US, their traditional ally and military guarantor, and the local economic superpower with whom they have ever more important trading ties.

If China attacked Taiwan, and the US replied with military force, Australia would consult with the US, as stipulated by the 1951 Anzus treaty. "But that's a very different thing from saying we would make a decision to go to war," Alexander Downer, the Foreign Minister, said in Canberra.

The "anti-secession" law may also prompt the European Union to reconsider its controversial plan to lift the arms embargo against China imposed after the Tiananmen Square bloodbath in 1989. Even before the law was passed yesterday, the US was pressing the EU to drop the plan.

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