The United States Monday branded as unfortunate and unhelpful the adoption by China's parliament of a law giving its military a legal basis to attack Taiwan if the island moved toward independence. The comments came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began her first Asian trip which will include a stop in China early next week.

China has always held out the prospect that it would use force in the face of an independence move by Taiwan.

But the enshrinement of that threat as law by the National People's Congress is being described here as an unhelpful step, one that is clearly also an unwelcome prelude to Ms. Rice's first Asian trip as Secretary of State.

Using the same language as his White House counterpart Scott McClellan, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the adoption of the law by the parliament, a foregone conclusion since Beijing announced the draft law a week ago, runs counter to what had been seen in Washington as a recent easing of tensions across the Taiwan Strait:

"The decision by the Chinese leaders to have the National People's Congress adopt an anti-secession law today is unfortunate. It really does not serve the cause of peace and stability on the Taiwan Strait and for that reason we believe it to be unhelpful. As we've noted before, it runs counter to the recent warming trends that we've seen in cross-strait relations. It only serves to harden positions," he said.

The National People's Congress, considered a rubber stamp for decisions of the Chinese leadership, approved the Taiwan measure with nearly 2,900 votes in favor, none against and two abstentions.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, the measure provides for the use of non-peaceful means and other necessary measures in the event that pro-independence forces in Taiwan move for the secession of the island, which China considers a renegade province.

Spokesman Boucher said the United States opposes any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, and will continue to encourage both sides to engage in peaceful dialogue to resolve their differences.

The United States has had a one-China policy since switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979, but is obligated to provide Taiwan with defensive arms under the Taiwan Relations Act approved by Congress at the time of the diplomatic shift.

Beijing will be the last stop on a week-long Asian mission by Ms. Rice that will include her first visits as secretary to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and South Korea as well as China.

In Tokyo and Seoul as well as Beijing, Ms. Rice will discuss efforts to bring North Korea back to the Chinese-hosted six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program.

In New Delhi, where she arrives late Tuesday, the secretary is expected to discuss the recent rapprochement between India and Pakistan, and prospects for resolving the dispute between the two South Asian powers over Kashmir.

The secretary will meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul later in the week to underscore U.S. support for Afghanistan's democratic transition and reconstruction.