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Resolve to reunite

Print edition : Apr 08, 2005 T+T-

The 10th National People's Congress of China adopts at its third session an anti-secession law with the intent to reunite Taiwan ultimately with mainland China.

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

IN the end, Jiang Zemin's farewell to politics was only a side-show at the third annual session of the 10th National People's Congress (NPC), China's Parliament, at the stately Great Hall of the People in Beijing. When the session concluded on March 14, the images that lingered were those of the deputies seeking to realise their dream of reunifying the non-sovereign territory of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland.

If this was the political intent behind the Taiwan-specific anti-secession law that was enacted on the final day of the session, the dream itself signified nothing less than the collective political will of the deputies to safeguard the People's Republic of China (PRC), whose legitimate territorial expanse has not yet been fully established.

In proclaiming their resolve to reunify Taiwan, currently outside the PRC's administrative jurisdiction, with the Chinese mainland, the leaders of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) sought to tread a fine line. Their effort in the main was to define the scenarios that might warrant the deployment of "non-peaceful means", a euphemism for military force, and "other necessary measures", not immediately spelt out in categorical terms, so as to translate into reality the principle that Taiwan is an integral part of China.

Ironically, however, this fine line passes through a grey political zone - the delicate interface between China's internal affairs and its foreign policy concerns. While the well-known reasons for this paradox are complex in scope, China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, the prime mover in Parliament, has made it abundantly clear that Beijing is "not afraid" of any move by foreign powers to interfere in matters relating to Taiwan's reunification. In a post-session press conference on March 14, Wen said: "Taiwan [question] brooks no interference from any foreign country. We do not want foreign interference but we are not afraid of any."

Keeping in mind the sustained American military support for the "Taiwan authorities" (as the non-sovereign `government' in Taipei is generally referred to by Beijing), Wen spoke of a similarity between China's new anti-secession law and the "two anti-secession resolutions" that were adopted in the United States around 1861. Wen said: "In the U.S., the civil war broke out soon after, but we here [in China] do not wish to see such a situation" develop over the Taiwan issue.

Noting that China would not invoke the operative part of the new law "so long as there is a ray of hope to promote a peaceful reunification", the Chinese leader asserted that the enactment "is by no means a war Bill". Wen went to great lengths to affirm that the new law was neither targeted at the people in Taiwan nor designed to change the status quo across the Taiwan Straits, a narrow sea lane, which links the mainland to the territory - the haven for the survivors among and the descendants of the "Chinese nationalists" who lost the civil war of the 1940s to the CPC, which founded the PRC.

Wen defined the status quo as the unchangeable reality that the two sides along the Taiwan Straits "belong to One China", namely, the PRC. Viewed in this perspective and in the context of the widespread international acceptance of Beijing's "One China policy", Wen noted that the inter-related objectives of the latest law were to "oppose and check the `Taiwan independence' forces" and indeed to bring about "the peaceful reunification of the country".

In this panoramic Chinese perspective, which cannot be easily disputed by the external powers that accept the "One China" principle, Wen has had no difficulty in portraying the fresh enactment as being "conducive to peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits".

Although Wen asserted that the latest anti-secession law was actually meant "to give expression to the will of the entire Chinese people, including the 23 million compatriots in Taiwan", the U.S. and some Taiwan-based "forces" - which seek either to render the territory into an "independent" entity or to sustain its current status as a distinctive area outside the purview of the PRC - are of a different view. This should explain the instantaneous reaction of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that China's new piece of legislation was not actually helpful in maintaining the status quo as regards Taiwan and as viewed from Washington.

Obviously, in this new situation, the American view of the Taiwan-related status quo is different from the one that U.S. President George W. Bush had articulated, to Wen's general satisfaction, at the White House on December 9, 2003 (Frontline, January 2, 2004). On that occasion, Bush's plea to both Beijing and Taipei to desist from steps that could alter the status quo was resonant with China's strategic objective of thwarting Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian from holding a referendum that could inexorably sustain the political divide between the two sides for the long run. In the event, Chen's referendum proved futile although he survived that disastrous move to win re-election as the domain's top leader.

While the U.S. clearly tends to regard Taiwan's prolonged existence as a domain outside the PRC's control as the real meaning of the status quo at least for now, Beijing insists that the strategic meaning of the present situation is that China's sovereignty over Taiwan is indisputable and that the territory, therefore, deserves to be reunified with the mainland by military force, if necessary, as "the last resort". This implies that the U.S. is willing to let the people of Taiwan remain outside the PRC's fold for as long as possible. In contrast, China obviously is beginning to see the activities of the "Taiwan independence forces", including Chen himself, as a new dynamic which, if unchecked, could undermine the international consensus that the territory does indeed belong to Beijing.

While this should explain China's new sense of urgency at a fundamental political level, there are also other factors of realpolitik at work. For the U.S., with bruises on its "imperial face" and caught badly in the quicksands of Iraq, there are more pressing issues to grapple with than the future of Taiwan. While Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme is sought to be addressed by the U.S. with some help from the European Union, Washington tends to believe that it needs Beijing's strategic intervention for a settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue.

In a sense, therefore, regional diplomats and analysts consider it likely that the Taiwan question will take an important place on the agenda of the U.S. when it begins to play the "endgame", in a truly strategic and not merely diplomatic manner, for a final resolution of the North Korean nuclear arms issue. For China, at the other end of the spectrum, it will make sense to pressure the "Taiwan authorities" and continue to woo the "compatriots" in that domain, without any further loss of time, given Washington's pressing concerns elsewhere.

It is against this interplay between opportunities of realpolitik and the long-term strategic "visions" in respect of both Washington and Beijing that China's purely domestic issue of an anti-secession law has attracted international attention.

IN a strategic sense, China's new anti-secession law is an answer to the Taiwan Relations Act, which the U.S. keeps citing for its "obligations" to help the non-sovereign territory, by military and other means, in spite of Washington's oft-repeated adherence to the "One China policy". The message from Beijing is that China, too, has a legal compulsion now to keep Taiwan in line for reunification, even if the U.S. has its own legal requirement to help that territory when it is in "distress".

During the John Foster Dulles era in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Washington did hold a veto over Taiwan's unification with the PRC - a closely kept secret that came to light only a few decades later. However, Washington cannot now claim any such veto, although the U.S. interpretation of the Taiwan Relations Act in a real crisis remains to be seen.

Not surprisingly, in this context, the new Chinese enactment spells out the scenarios in which "non-peaceful means" could be used against Taiwan. One of them would be actual action by the "forces" campaigning for "Taiwan independence", under "any name or by any means", to create the "fact of Taiwan's secession from China". Another scenario would be the occurrence of "major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China". Yet another reality check in this context would be an assessment by Beijing that all "possibilities for a peaceful reunification" had been "completely exhausted".

There is a message behind the elaborate safeguards of this kind for China's eventual military action against Taiwan, should that become necessary. By this, the Central government in Beijing has sought to reassure the people in Taiwan, who could come under some kind of economic blockade or sanctions, under the rubric of the "other necessary measures", in the event of a decision by China to use "non-peaceful means".

At another level, the decision by the Chinese leaders, President Hu Jintao and others, to accept the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, has a message for Taiwan, too, and not just for the people of the former British colony that came back under China's sovereign jurisdiction in 1997.

Hong Kong is administered as a special administrative region under China's overall control, on the basis of the principle of "one country, two systems". Hong Kong can retain a market-oriented capitalist economy and self-governing political autonomy under this principle for 50 years under the overall framework of the Basic Law, which governs the territory's equation with Beijing.

With Tung having run foul of the "pro-democracy" campaigners in Hong Kong (Frontline, January 30, 2004), his resignation on health grounds and Beijing's acceptance of the same can be seen as responsiveness to the political sentiments, among vocal sections, in the territory. Tung's consequent elevation as a Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body that consists of CPC and "non-communist parties" and non-political persons, is of course a matter of a graceful exit strategy for him.

The Chinese Prime Minister has said that history will "fairly" judge Tung against the backdrop of his contributions to the successful implementation of the principles of "one country, two systems" and "a high degree of autonomy" in Hong Kong. However, by being receptive to the "pro-democracy" voices in Hong Kong, Hu and other Chinese leaders have sent a direct or collateral message of positive overtones to the people in Taiwan, who pride themselves on being "democratic" (after a few decades under authoritarian rule).

NO less important a domestic development, which is closely related to the style and substance of the emerging politics in China, is the final bow that Jiang Zemin has now made.

For Hu and his colleagues - Wu Bangguo as Chairman of the NPC and its Standing Committee and Wen as Prime Minister, among others - the smooth and complete transition of leadership from "the era of Jiang Zemin" to their own generation can be taken as a positive sign that China, under the CPC, is able to manage its affairs.

The calibrated process of transition began in November 2002, in the face of a prediction by Gordon Chang about the "coming collapse" of China and in the context of the Western "ringside" views about a brewing power struggle, which was traced to what were styled by experts like Andrew J. Nathan and others as the "secret files" on the "deliberations" within the CPC hierarchy at the time.

Now, the latest development completes the process of leadership change at the highest echelons of the Chinese power structure. This relates to Jiang's resignation from the last of his four official positions, namely as Chairman of the PRC's Central Military Commission, and the NPC's consequential election of Hu to that post.

After handing over the powerful post of General Secretary of the CPC to Hu in November 2002, Jiang divested himself of the positions as PRC President in March 2003 and Chairman of the CPC's Central Military Commission, arguably the most powerful post in the country, in September 2004. Hu took over these positions as well, and the entire process was effected under the due processes of either the party or the NPC.

It is a simple but profound truism that it requires tremendous skills to rule over a vast country like China, whose population is of the order of 1.3 billion and whose military force will be about 2.3-million-strong sometime this year after the latest in a series of exercises to right-size all the wings of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is completed.

Not surprisingly, the issues about the CPC's unchallenged rule over China are often addressed, at the levels of the party and the government, within the country itself. The reforms and modernisation programmes initiated by Deng Xiaoping in his role as the "paramount leader" during the late-1970s and the 1980s were, in part, designed to address these issues.

A major reform input, in the 1990s and up to the present time, has been Jiang's "Important Thought of Three Represents". With the Three Represents having already been incorporated into the constitutions of the CPC and the PRC, alongside the political philosophies of Deng and Mao Zedong, the party now "represents" not only the "communist" constituencies but also the "overwhelming majority" of the Chinese people, inclusive of those in the category of private entrepreneurs, under the ongoing process of "opening up" and market-oriented economic reforms.

An arguable view of Jiang's contribution in this sphere, as articulated by Guoguang Wu, a Chinese "insider" before the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, is that the theory of "Three Represents", as seen by the CPC, is designed to "maintain its legitimacy in monopolising political power while embracing the opportunities offered by capitalist globalisation for stimulating Chinese economic growth". To this end, there has also been an infusion of "elite circulation" to enlarge the party's social base.

As for an essentially Hong Kong perspective on China, long-time observers such as Willy Wo-Lap Lam have spoken of the PLA as "Jiang's closest ally" in the context of the military-related modernisation and other programmes during his reign at the helm.

From the quintessentially Western standpoint, China-sceptics such as David Shambaugh have argued that the CPC would be well advised to fashion at least a "proactive party-state" so as to "remain relevant" to the changing Chinese society at the beginning of the 21st century.

Whatever be the perspectives - and there will be many concerning a mammoth state like China - its new leaders appear to be aware of the challenges and opportunities of playing a significant role within the country and on the global stage.

While last year's session of the NPC was notable for effecting constitutional changes in the domains of human rights and private ownership of property (Frontline, April 9, 2004), the latest session has heralded a new beginning in this post-Jiang phase. With Tung leaving the scene in Hong Kong, Hu and his team have signalled their priorities on domestic issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan.