After a long, emotional debate that included scuffles between legislators, Taiwan's parliament passed a highly controversial law Thursday that gives the island's president limited powers to call a national referendum on independence.
The new law, which declares that such a referendum may be used only as a defensive move in case of an imminent attack by mainland China, is far less than what President Chen Shui-bian had pushed for. It appeared to ease the possibility of provoking an immediate crisis with Beijing over the issue.
Chen's Democratic Progressive Party failed to win support for other potentially provocative measures that would have allowed changes in Taiwan's constitution, its flag and its name by plebiscite.
Those provisions were defeated by the main opposition Nationalists, who hold a slim majority in the parliament. With the idea popular among Taiwan's electorate and a presidential election only four months away, the Nationalists were forced to abandon their opposition to the referendum legislation this month. However, in the end, they used their clout to sharply reduce the law's scope and political importance.
Those tracking the presidential campaign believe that Chen had hoped to use the referendum initiative as part of a high-risk strategy to catapult himself ahead of his Nationalist opponent, Lien Chan, by showing himself to be a Taiwanese patriot prepared to confront Beijing. Although trailing badly in public opinion polls earlier this fall, recent surveys indicate he has closed the gap to within a few percentage points of Lien.
Political analysts also believe that Chen is hoping to provoke Beijing into the kind of intense saber-rattling that generated a public backlash in Taiwan and helped him win the presidency four years ago.
"Chen knows he needs a high-risk strategy to win, but this [the referendum law] is no victory for him," said Andrew Yang, head of the Chinese Council of Advanced Political Studies, a Taipei-based think tank.
Others, initially concerned that the Nationalists' sudden swing behind the referendum idea would make a confrontation with Beijing inevitable, now see the switch as a clever maneuver that has robbed Chen of a key campaign weapon.
Mainland China's official China Daily newspaper on Friday quoted a state-backed group as criticizing the legislation but saying it had been watered down.
"The extremely irresponsible move, which goes against the fundamental interests of Taiwanese people, will be finally cast aside by the public," the newspaper quoted Wang Kebin, secretary-general of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, as saying.
Last week, a senior mainland official warned of a "strong response" if the referendum law carried provisions for a vote on independence. Mainland China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that belongs under Beijing's control.
The Nationalists have historically subscribed to a "one-China policy" in which Taiwan is part of mainland China but support maintaining the status quo for now.