SUDDENLY international concern is focused on the Taiwan Strait, a scene of major tension since 14 March, when the Chinese parliament passed an anti-secession law that for the first time authorises Beijing “to use non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if its authorities insist on going their own way in opting for independence.
On 13 March President Hu Jintao, who is also general secretary of the Communist party, wearing uniform and just elected head of the central military commission, invited the armed forces “to prepare for armed conflict” (1). The declaration is being taken all the more seriously since China’s military budget has been increased by 12.6 %.
Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian, whose party is pro-independence and who a few days before had threatened to introduce an anti-annexation law, has described the Beijing vote as a “law that authorises war”. The United States expressed concern. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said: “We view it as unhelpful and something that runs counter to recent trends toward a warming in cross- straits relations . . . We oppose any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo” (2). The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, put this view to Hu in Beijing on 21 March.
Since 1972 Washington has recognised only one China and sees Taiwan as an integral part of that country. But in 1979 Congress unanimously voted a resolution urging the US to guarantee Taiwan’s security. The recent nomination of John Bolton, a fierce supporter of Taiwanese independence and former adviser to the government in Taipei, as US ambassador to the United Nations will not reassure the Beijing authorities.
Japan is alarmed because of the “negative effects of this law on peace and stability in the region”. Tensions between the two powers have increased in recent months. In February Tokyo announced that its forces had taken control of a lighthouse on the uninhabited archipelago of Senkaku, territory claimed by Beijing, which calls it Diaoyu. China described this as a “serious provocation” and “completely unacceptable” (3). The archipelago is in a rich fishing area where significant hydrocarbon deposits have been discovered.
To counter China’s international weight the US now supports the main diplomatic claim advanced by Japan: a permanent seat on the UN security council. In February, in a historic move, Tokyo and Washington signed a joint declaration in which they proposed a “common strategic objective” of working towards a peaceful resolution of the issues in the Taiwan Strait (4). This is the first time since 1945 that Japan has abandoned its neutral stance on Taiwan.
Beijing believes that the Bush administration has a containment policy against China, with Japan in the role of ally-cum-poodle as a Britain in Asia. In China’s view, Washington is encouraging Japanese rearmament while increasing its own military bases around China (in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan) and strengthening military ties with India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
But things are not so simple. Economically, Washington needs China, which recycles much of its fabulous foreign exchange surpluses by buying US Treasury bills, thereby indirectly financing the US budget deficit (5). Washington also urgently needs Chinese assistance as intermediary in the negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons
Beijing knows that it has a strong hand. It also knows that it is becoming a force at international level. This is why China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has warned: “Solving the Taiwan issue is subject to no interference by any outside forces. We are not willing to see any foreign interference occur.” He added: “But we are not afraid of any interference should it occur” (6).
The tensions have had repercussions within Europe. The “anti-secession law” against Taiwan has caused a delay in the lifting of the European embargo on the sale of arms to Beijing, for which France and Germany had pressed.
China is keen to maintain an international stability that will leave it free to continue its rise to power and guarantee a trouble-free Olympics in 2008. It knows it should not go too far. But in a Chinese domestic context where social division and competition is intensifying, the authorities want to remind the world that national unity comes before anything else, and that the secession of Taiwan would constitute a full casus belli.
(1) Le Monde, Paris, 15 March 2005.
(2) China’s explanation of Anti-Secession Law, Reuters dispatch, 14 March 2005.
(3) El PaÃs, Madrid, 18 March 2005.
(4) See Yong Xue, “Is the empire striking back?”, International Herald Tribune, 17 March 2005.
(5) See Ibrahim Warde, “High price of the cheap dollar”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2005.
(6) “Secession law aims at peace, China saysInternational Herald Tribune, 15 March 2005.
Translated by Ed Emery