HONG KONG—China's parliament has enacted a law in its closing session which effectively pre-authorizes military action against Taiwan should the self-ruled island seek formal independent statehood.
"Votes in favor: 2, 896. Abstentions: two ...The bill passes!" came the announcements after a vote by National People's Congress (NPC) deputies. No one voted against the Anti-Secession Law, which was immediately promulgated by President Hu Jintao.
Beijing most fears that Taiwan, which has been ruled separately since Nationalist forces fled there in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland, will seek independent statehood as Taiwan.
The island has officially kept its title of Republic of China, a name left over from the Nationalist revolution of 1911, but few states now recognize it diplomatically.
Should the island seek formal independence, or if "possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity," runs the text of the Anti-Secession law, which has been roundly criticized both in Taiwan and in the wider international community.
In such an event, the law says, "the State Council and the Central Military Commission (CMC) shall decide on and execute the non-peaceful means and other necessary measures."
Hu was also appointed chairman of the CMC at this parliamentary session, succeeding Jiang Zemin in the last of the three top leadership posts.
In the event that the "Taiwan independence" secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity...The State Council and the Central Military Commission shall decide on and execute the non-peaceful means and other necessary measures.
In Taiwan, legislators burnt a Chinese flag and called for a million Taiwanese to rally in protest.
Cabinet spokesman Cho Jung-tai said the law was tantamount to preparation for war. "All people in Taiwan are against the legislation, and we believe the world community also opposes it," Cho said.
Mainland Affairs Council chairman Joseph Wu said Beijing had unilaterally altered the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and demanded that China "sincerely apologize to the Taiwanese people for their grave mistake".
The move effectively puts China's cabinet and military command structure on a war footing, enabling them to move straight ahead with military action without consulting the NPC further.
While the NPC's lack of real political power makes this a symbolic, rather than a practical move, the law has fueled concerns of increased tensions in the region.
"We view the adoption of the anti-secession law as unfortunate," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters. "It does not serve the purpose of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. We believe it runs counter to recent progress in cross-Strait relations.''
How can you pass a law like that unilaterally? A resolution by the United Nations or some other international body would be more appropriate.
The European Union agreed. "The EU urges all sides to avoid any unilateral action that could stoke tensions," Brussels said in a statement, while reaffirming its support of the One China policy, which China presses all its major diplomatic partners to accept.
"The EU will be worried if this passage of a law referring to the use of 'non-peaceful means' negated recent signs of rapprochement between the two sides," the EU said.
Callers to RFA's Voices of the People phone-in show appeared uncertain as to the law's effect.
"How can you pass a law like that unilaterally? A resolution by the United Nations or some other international body would be more appropriate," a man from Shanghai said.
So long as there is a glimmer of hope for peaceful reunification, we will exert our utmost to make it happen rather than give it up.
Meanwhile, a caller from Liuzhou in the southern region of Guangxi was unsure if Taiwan could be brought back to the mainland under Beijing's re-unification strategy.
"Do you think it is possible to re-unify Taiwan as part of China? It's not a question of whether I agree with it or not. It seems to me from the point of view of history that what has been separated can't be put back together again," the caller said.
"Whether or not the mainland can turn this around would depend on whether our government can improve the way it treats ordinary people," he added.
China's leaders, in the face of strong opposition from Taiwan, where thousands have already taken to the streets in protest and where much larger demonstrations are expected at the weekend, tried to paint a milder picture of the law.
"[The Anti-Secession Law] is not a law of war but one for the peaceful reunification of the motherland," Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference after the closure of the NPC annual session Monday.
"It is not a law intended to change the status quo that both sides of the Taiwan Straits belong to one China, but one conducive to peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits," Wen said.
"So long as there is a glimmer of hope for peaceful reunification, we will exert our utmost to make it happen rather than give it up," he said.
The law was passed as newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kicked off her March 14-21 Asian tour, which will take in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan, South Korea, and China.