Threatening Taiwan

March 09, 2005

CHINESE authorities yesterday released the first details of a worrisome new law that is expected to be adopted next week and that pre-authorizes military action against Taiwan in response to potential moves by the island toward independence. The move should be of great concern not only in Washington - which has protested in advance and could easily get drawn into any armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait - but also particularly within the European Union, where pressures have been mounting to lift a longstanding embargo on arms sales to China.

In one sense, the anti-secession law only codifies China's long-running military threats toward Taiwan. It talks of using such force only when possibilities for peaceful reunification of the mainland and the island become exhausted. And it doesn't set a timetable for reunification.

At the same time, the new law is a hard-edged retort to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's talk last year of altering the island's constitution to reflect its de facto statehood - even though Mr. Chen more recently has pulled back from that drift and the two sides even successfully collaborated on their first direct flights during last month's Chinese New Year holiday.

Perhaps of greatest import, the new law underscores Beijing's expanding military investment, capacities and ambitions and its increasing moves to throw its growing economic and diplomatic weight around in East Asia, carving out influence in what had been a U.S. sphere of dominance.

With its soaring wealth, China has been pouring billions of dollars into modernizing its armed forces - the actual total is believed to far exceed its official defense budget - and has been particularly focused on acquiring advanced civilian technologies for potential military use. It already has hundreds of missiles trained at Taiwan and is rapidly developing an amphibious-landing capability. This has set off alarms in Washington and Tokyo, which last month issued a joint statement of concern about China's potential security threat in the region.

But in sharp contrast, the EU - led by commercial interests in France and Germany - has been moving this spring to lift the arms-sale embargo its members have largely observed since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Where Taiwan, Japan and the United States see continuing human rights abuses and a rising military threat, the EU sees a big sales opportunity. In Europe last month, President Bush did not succeed in dissuading leaders from this potentially dangerous move. There have been congressional threats of trade retaliation against Europe. And this week's formal Chinese threat to Taiwan only gives the EU one more good reason to reconsider.

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