Legislators from both sides of the Taiwan Straits normally stay in the backdrop in the cross-Straits relations. However, interestingly, in the past several months, two legislature-related events marked important turning points in the relations between Taiwan and China: Taiwan’s December 2004 Legislature election, and the Anti-Secession Law (ASL) passed by the National People’s Congress in March 2005.
Prior to Taiwan’s Legislature’s election, President Chen Shui-ban and its independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) launched an aggressive, “in-your-face” campaign that certainly antagonized China. They proposed to create a “new Taiwan Constitution” tailor-made for the needs of the island, suggesting a referendum on a new Taiwan Constitution in 2006, and having it implemented in May 2008, just before the Olympics in Beijing. They also raised the issue of removing the name “China” from a number of public enterprises or institutions. However, despite their strong showing prior to the election, the DPP and its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, failed to win the majority. Instead, the pan-Blue opposition parties (the Nationalist, People First, and New Parties) altogether captured 114 of the 225 seats in the Legislative Yuan.
After the election, President Chen toned down his pro-independence rhetoric. He named a moderate, Frank Chang-ting Hsieh, the Mayor of Kaohsiung, as the premier. Hsieh avoided the sensitive topic of name change and indicated that his priorities were practical issues such as the economy, the reconciliation with the opposition, and the cross-Strait relations. Beijing responded favorably in late January 2005, indicating its willingness to “open talks with any Taiwanese leader regardless of his past rhetoric and actions.” Adding to the reconciliatory atmosphere were the direct charter flights between both sides arranged for the Chinese New Year holidays. In late February 2005, Chen issued a 10-point joint declaration with James Soong, Chair of the People First Party, acknowledging the current definition of Taiwan’s status, and reiterating support for the Republic of China. Chen said that he would not shut the door on eventual unification with China if Beijing expressed good will. Chen’s action took the pro-independence camp by surprise and a number of them threatened to sever ties with the DPP or Chen’s administration. Soong hinted that the United States had played an important role in bringing about the consensus.
However, Taiwan’s reconciliatory posture was not sufficient to reverse the political momentum behind the ASL. The National People’s Congress enacted the law to authorize the government to employ “non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Taipei immediately put on hold talks on direct charter cargo flights and holiday passenger flights, claiming that the legislation handed the Chinese military a “blank check” to attack Taiwan. In late March, Chen joined the massive demonstration held in Taipei to protest against the ASL. On the other hand, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao defended the law as a measure to ensure peace, not promote war. Clearly, the ASL contains sufficient elements for both sides to pick and choose in support of their positions, but ultimately, much of the future development depends on the perception of and reaction to the ASL, both in terms of the internal politics of both sides and in terms of the political agenda of the major powers in the Asia Pacific.