China’s Parliament Passes Legislation Authorizing Use of Force Against Taiwan
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IAN WILLIAMS: Invited to cast their votes, the delegates stretched in unison for the “yes” button. The result was never in doubt. The role of China’s annual meeting of parliament is largely to endorse government decisions.
But China’s communist leaders wanted a unanimous vote on a law that gives them the right to invade Taiwan, should the island declare formal independence.
WEN JIABAO (Translated): This law is meant to curb and oppose the Taiwan independence forces. Peace can only be maintained once the Taiwan independence forces are stopped.
IAN WILLIAMS: The new law comes just days after the government announced a big increase in military spending and a day after President Hu Jintao urged the Chinese military to be prepared for possible conflict. The U.S. has already expressed concern about the law and the growing tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
At his annual press conference this morning, after the closure of parliament, China’s prime minister rejected what he called outside interference. But he did try and calm fears over the succession law, saying it was meant to improve relations with Taiwan, and that military action was a last resort.
WEN JIABAO (Translated): This is a law advancing peaceful unification between the sides. It is not targeted at the people of Taiwan, nor is it a war bill.
IAN WILLIAMS: The prime minister then keen to play down the more aggressive parts of the new law, but it does ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan, where events here are being viewed with increasing alarm.
MARGARET WARNER: Does this new law heighten tensions or even the prospect of military conflict between China and Taiwan? And what more broadly does it say about China’s intentions?
For that we turn to Kenneth Lieberthal, special assistant to the president and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, a professor at the University of Michigan, he’s currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. And Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s written extensively about China. Welcome to you both.
Professor Lieberthal, this is a time where there have been some improvements actually in cross strait relations. Why is China doing this now?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think China is doing it, first of all, because they felt that they had lost their credibility when they threatened to use force if Taiwan went too far toward independence. And they didn’t want to use force to regain their credibility; that would have too many repercussions, and so the fallback position was to adopt a law that frankly doesn’t change much legally in China but highlights that they’re serious about this issue.
I think they’re doing it now because they anticipated last December that what’s called the pan-green in Taiwan, President Chen Shui-bian’s coalition, would achieve a majority for the first time in the legislature, and then use that majority to push constitutional revision that would really cross what China could bear.
So, they set this law in motion in China. Ironically the legislative elections did not produce a majority for pan-green but by then Beijing was stuck. And so they followed through. I think if they had to do it over again knowing what they now know about the Taiwan legislative elections we would not see this law at this time.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Waldron as we saw from the vote it was 2896-0. The president of China, if he had wanted to bring it… to pull it back surely could have done whatever he wanted. What would you add to what drove China to do this now?
ARTHUR WALDRON: Well, I see this fundamentally as an attempt by the new leader, Hu Jintao, who has just taken over military authority, to put his mark on Taiwan policy.
And what is striking, the law, as Ken said, doesn’t really add anything to what’s already been said by PRC, but it does move the locus for making a decision to go to war under Article 62, Section 14 of the Chinese constitution: the war and peace decisions are made by the National People’s Congress.
Now what this new law does is say that a decision to attack Taiwan can be made by the state council, that is, by the cabinet and the central military commission. So what I sense here is a growth in the influence of the Chinese military at the expense of the civilian administration.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s part of what’s going on here Professor Lieberthal?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I actually think that the major change that Hu Jintao made as he has consolidated his position has been to shift from focusing on reunification with Taiwan as the immediate goal of China to focusing on trying to stabilize for the long term the cross strait relationship, saying that reunification in their terms is not achievable by this generation.
And so within China, that has been his mantra. And if you look at this law, the law is all about not allowing Taiwan to succeed in going independent but there is really very little about any effort to achieve unification.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Waldron, do you think…I mean, when people in America pick up their paper and read this, it’s going to make people nervous that it really increases the prospect of a military confrontation — do you think it will or do you agree with Professor Lieberthal that actually President Hu isn’t really eager to push a confrontation?
ARTHUR WALDRON: Well I’m always worried when people begin to paint themselves into rhetorical corners about the use of military force. It would have been much better if President Hu had reciprocated some of the moves that our State Department mentioned to try to improve relations.
To give just one example, despite all the call for unification, PRC has never been willing to simply sit down and talk to the representatives from Taipei, not since 1993. There’s no negotiation going on.
Furthermore, the law by its very existence makes the situation in a sense more pressing. The more you say, the more people are going to say, all right, well, when are you going to put up or shut up? So I’m concerned, although I agree with Ken that it would be madness for PRC to go to war.
MARGARET WARNER: What you’re saying is you do think that it can nonetheless start a vicious circle again of escalating tensions that could spin out of control?
ARTHUR WALDRON: Well, I think it would… yes, I think that’s right. It would be better if PRC had taken a step that would have added to the momentum which Taiwan has been trying to create. For instance, through these New Year’s flights across the strait toward cooperation. If we could have gotten momentum in that direction, that would have been very favorable.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay.
ARTHUR WALDRON: This is a push in the other direction.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lieberthal, what do you think is the likely reaction first of all in Taiwan?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, that’s the big question. I think Chen Shui-bian, the president, to date has said this is a time when everyone’s pointing to China as the troublemaker. Let’s not mess that up by becoming the troublemaker ourselves, by escalating this thing.
But we see just in the last few hours some of the more strongly pro independence people in Taiwan are now saying we need to have a law that pushes back on this law, allows a referendum for the president to do whatever he wants to do, to cope with the China threat and so forth.
So, I think a big issue will be whether President Chen, (a), sticks with his current approach and, (b), is able to manage the situation in Taiwan. If he is, then, I would expect after a period of some upset and venting, we’ll see actually the possibility that there will be a lot of activity across the strait three or four months from now as both sides try to stabilize things and move forward.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s your bet, Professor Waldron, on Taiwan’s likely reaction, or I should say what’s your analysis?
ARTHUR WALDRON: Well, I think that basically what you suggested in your last question is happening, which is that the people in Taiwan who are most concerned about China are going to take to the streets and so forth and people are going to be concerned.
This is, after all, a completely democratic and free society. But I think the bigger effect is going to be that the opposition parties and the Democratic Progressive Party now in power are going to reach some sort of a consensus. We’ve just had a very significant talks between James Sung who is the leader of the People-First Party, which would be labeled pro China, although unfairly, and Chen Shui-bian.
And they arrived at a 10-point agreement about China policy, which did not rule out ultimate unification. That was a very positive step.
MARGARET WARNER: So, just briefly, are you saying that you think this will create the kind of backlash that pro independence forces can exploit?
ARTHUR WALDRON: No, what I’m saying is I think that this will solidify a highly divided political situation in Taiwan around a shared conviction that PRC must not be permitted to determine the island’s future. That matter is up to the democratically expressed will of the people there.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we have to finish, Professor Lieberthal, let’s talk about more broadly — how is this going to be read in the region not just this vote but the fact that the government has announced another major increase in military spending. President Hu talked on Sunday about people getting ready for the need for military action.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well, I don’t think this is welcome anywhere in the region. I think everyone in the region is concerned about China’s increase in military capabilities. At the same time everyone is building ties with China, economically and diplomatically; and they’re hoping that — to steer all of China’s involvement in the region in a constructive direction.
What we’re seeing basically is in Southeast Asia people on balance see China as playing a terrific role recently. And in northeast Asia people are getting more nervous as the Chinese act in a somewhat more muscular fashion. So this is — it’s a balance and people don’t welcome what has just occurred and they will try to encourage moderation.
MARGARET WARNER: But what does it say, for instance, this increase in military spending – I mean, if you take the new president of China, not so new anymore, but what are his intentions and goals here about China’s military strength and to what degree it is to be augmented and for what purpose?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think China has two major goals in increasing its military spending. One is the Taiwan scenario. It wants to be credible across the strait. The second is to protect its sources especially of energy. China is a resource-scarce society. It is becoming increasingly dependent on far-flung sources of energy and other key materials.
They have no naval capability to protect their supply lines. I think over the long run they’re trying to build that up. But let me be clear. Both of those objectives put China in a place where China traditionally has almost no capability, requiring long-range air power and naval power. And so that’s going to be a very tough hill for them to climb effectively.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Waldron, last word from you about China’s rising military power and the impact in the region.
ARTHUR WALDRON: Well I think that China should learn the lesson of Germany, which is that a great country can rise purely economically if the Germans had sat on their hands starting about 1905 they would now be the leading power in Europe. But instead they pulled themselves down through war.
I don’t think the Chinese really have a clear idea of what they want to do with their military power, but they have a sense it’s a good thing to have. But as Ken points out, they are worrying their neighbors. And most recently Japan, which has previously been quite favorable to China, has adopted a much more robust approach. This if I were Chinese would worry me very much.
In fact, the Japanese has annexed territory islands which the Chinese claim and the Chinese have said nothing about it. Taiwan’s obviously is concerned, Australia is concerned. Other states in the area are concerned. I think that the policy of sort of beating your chest doesn’t win you friends. And many people… if I may just conclude, many people wants to be friends with China. Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S. administration has made it clear its concern too but we don’t have time to go there, so thank you both very much.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Thank you.
ARTHUR WALDRON: Thank you.