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Lawmakers in Taiwan assail China's new anti-secession law

BEIJING—Angry Taiwanese lawmakers burned China's flag in protest Monday and the island denounced a new anti-secession law in Beijing as a "serious provocation" while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned the United States to stay on the sidelines of the dispute.

An aide to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, Cabinet spokesman Cho Jung-tai, called the new law "tantamount to an authorization of war." The law sets conditions for when China may launch a military attack to pull the independently governed island under its wing by force.

Politicians in Taipei made plans to put as many as a million protesters on the streets March 26 in opposition to the law, a tactic taken from the playbook of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who've been a thorn in Beijing's side.

Wen, at a once-a-year news conference, described the anti-secession law the National People's Congress approved earlier in the day as "by no means a war bill." He said China would strive to ensure that no fighting broke out along the Taiwan Strait.

"So long as there is a ray of hope, we will do our utmost to promote a peaceful reunification," he said.

Nonetheless, in an expression of China's growing military confidence, Wen warned the United States to stay on the sidelines of the dispute over Taiwan, indicating that China may no longer fear the United States militarily.

The Bush administration expressed concern about the law Monday.

"We do view the adoption of the anti-secession law as something that is unfortunate and not helpful to encouraging peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We don't believe anyone should be taking unilateral steps or make unilateral changes that increases tensions."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to raise the new law with Chinese officials when she stopped in China later this week.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a former Clinton administration China adviser, said China had begun drafting the law last year when it thought that December legislative elections in Taiwan would strengthen the pro-independence movement. Even though pro-independence forces did poorly in the election, Chinese leaders decided to proceed with the law to make clear their willingness to use force, said Lieberthal, who's a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a liberal to moderate public-policy institute in Washington.

China claims Taiwan is a renegade province, and it fears that letting the island out of its grasp could spark secession drives in other regions, such as Tibet, and weaken the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people with nearly 13 times greater per-capita income than the mainland, has governed itself for more than five decades and says it's already a sovereign country. A statement by Taipei's Mainland Affairs Council on Monday called Beijing's contention that the two sides belong to "one China" a fiction.

In Beijing, the anti-secession bill sailed through the National People's Congress, a ceremonial body controlled by the Communist Party, with a vote of 2,896 delegates in favor and no one opposed. Two members abstained. President Hu Jintao immediately signed the bill and enacted it into law.

The law, which wasn't unveiled to the public until Monday, says Taiwan will be granted a "high degree of autonomy" after reunification. It says Beijing will work for direct links of trade, mail, and air and shipping services immediately.

In its final paragraphs, the law enshrines China's right to use "non-peaceful force" against the island, and sets three trip wires for that eventuality: It stipulates that China may attack Taiwan if pro-independence forces cause secession, if "major incidents" entailing a move toward secession occur or if "possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted."

Enactment came a day after Hu met with military leaders of the 2.5 million-member People's Liberation Army and exhorted them to increase their training. Coverage of the meeting was splashed across newspapers' front pages Monday.

"We shall step up preparations for possible military struggle and enhance our capabilities to cope with crises, safeguard peace, prevent wars and win wars, if there are any," Hu said, according to the China Daily.

China already has some 700 short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan.

Wen was asked to clarify whether China is building an army that could "win any war"—as the premier said earlier this month—even if the United States is drawn into a conflict over Taiwan.

"Taiwan is completely China's affair," Wen said, enunciating each word slowly. "It brooks no interference from any foreign country. We do not want foreign interference, yet we are not afraid of any."

Chinese reporters at the news conference burst into applause at the remark.

Washington has sold Taiwan billions of dollars in armaments in recent decades, and is obligated by Congress under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself. Washington has urged both sides to resolve their differences peacefully.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050314 CHINA territory

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