INTRO: Legislation aimed at keeping Taiwan from declaring independence will be on the agenda when China's National People's Congress convenes this Saturday (March 5th). As Benjamin Sand reports from Hong Kong, the legislation has sparked a political uproar in Taiwan, and could worsen cross-strait relations.

TEXT: The legislation is expected to authorize military force if Taiwan takes steps toward formal independence. It is expected to be a key item of debate during the annual session of the National People's Congress.

Chinese officials say the law will show Beijing's commitment to peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Supporters insist it will help curb what Beijing sees as Taiwan's pro-independence inclinations, and thereby prevent a military confrontation.

Critics, on the other hand, say the law threatens the delicate political balance that helps keep the peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Huang Wei-fang is with the Mainland Affairs Council in Taiwan.

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"When China tries to enact a law to change the status quo, change the reality of the status quo, that would count as a serious provocation for Taiwanese."

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Taiwan's connection to China is fairly recent - when measured against China's long history - and anything but consistent.

It was annexed in the late 1600s by China's Qing Dynasty. Some 210 years later, in 1895, it was ceded to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. It remained in Japanese hands until 1945, at the end of World War II, when sovereignty was returned to China.

China's civil war followed, however, and in 1949, when the Communists emerged victorious, the Nationalists fled to Taiwan and took control there. The island has been self-governed since, becoming an economic powerhouse and a democracy.

Beijing insists the island is Chinese territory, and most of the world, including the United States, accepts this.

China's leaders have long threatened military intervention if Taiwan officially declares independence.

In Taipei, the proposed legislation has prompted anger. Pro-independence lawmakers are pressuring Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to introduce legislation against reunification with China.

But President Chen, who has called the anti-secession law the greatest threat to regional peace, says that for now, he wants to avoid worsening ties with Beijing.

Three of Chen's top advisors threaten to resign to protest what they consider the president's weak response to the anti-secession law.

Beijing introduced the proposal in December after legislative elections in Taiwan marked by open consideration of independence.

Professor Nan Li studies Chinese security policy at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He says the legislation is likely the result of disputes within China's Communist Party, where hard-liners favor a more confrontational approach toward Taiwan.

Mr. Li believes China's moderate leaders may support the law to strengthen their links with influential hawks in the military.

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"The new leadership has been trying to consolidate power. They are politically vulnerable so they need to appear patriotic, nationalistic, they can't be shown as selling out Chinese interests."

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However, Mr. Li does not think the proposed law actually increases the odds of military intervention.

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"It's still a compromise between the hard-liners and the moderates, simply because the law is anti-secession. It's not (a) unification law."

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Despite the political acrimony, trade and investment between Taiwan and the mainland continue to grow.

China's critics in Taiwan suggest Beijing will use its ties to the island's business community to push the island's government to become more conciliatory.

In Washington, there are concerns about the anti-secession law. Bush administration officials, while reiterating support for the so-called one-China policy, have spoken out against the legislation.

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State Department spokesman Richard Boucher has restated the administration's warning against any unilateral change in the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.


"The U.S. government has been quite clear that we don't think either side should take unilateral steps that try and define the situation further or push it in one direction or another."

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Until the exact wording of the legislation is revealed, however, it remains unclear how much the legislation would actually change Chinese policy toward Taiwan, or the U.S. position on the issue. (Signed)