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Taiwan’s ties with China slip as new president fumbles for a formula

A handout photo shows a police officer and a civilian trying to break the windows of a tourist bus in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on July 19, 2016. All 26 people inside -- 24 Chinese tourists, a Taiwanese guide and a Taiwanese driver -- died.
A handout photo shows a police officer and a civilian trying to break the windows of a tourist bus in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on July 19, 2016. All 26 people inside -- 24 Chinese tourists, a Taiwanese guide and a Taiwanese driver -- died.
(Yan Chen / Bao Liao Commune)

When a tour bus caught fire in Taiwan in July, killing 24 mainland Chinese visitors, China reacted in fury.

It demanded stronger safety measures for its travelers on the island. Chinese state media warned that tourists might stop going to Taiwan. In response, Taiwan’s Transportation Ministry pledged the best possible aid to families of the victims.

That sort of back and forth wouldn’t have happened a year ago. Then, China more than likely would have officially ignored the disaster, not wanting to further damage relations with Taiwan, a political rival for seven decades.

But since Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, took office in May, China has grown surlier and no one is sure how much further it will go. And the abrasiveness cuts both ways: Despite the pledge to help families in the tour bus disaster, Tsai is considerably less conciliatory to China than her predecessor.

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China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which considers itself to be fully independent. China’s prickliness, plus a string of jarring episodes such as the fire, is now putting pressure on Tsai to form a clearer China policy.

The question that arises is whether Beijing can tolerate an indefinite stagnation of relations.

Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu

“President Tsai is still trying to find a solution,” said Liu Yi-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “She’s entering … the tunnel and she’s still far away from the end. ... She needs to say something not to discourage the Chinese leaders.”

About 90% of Taiwanese support holding talks with China, according to a government poll released Aug. 99, but the two sides have found no way. China and Taiwan are separated only by a 110-mile-wide strait, but the political and rhetorical gulf between them is vast.

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Beijing wants Tsai’s administration to enter a dialogue in which each side casts itself as part of a single entity known as China, though subject to different interpretations — a bit like China’s “one country, two systems” approach to Hong Kong. Tsai opposes that condition as belittling the island’s de facto autonomy.

Complicating matters are the China-related mishaps, including the bus fire, that have mounted quickly under Tsai’s watch.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen greets the crew on a navy ship in July before it sets out to patrol in the South China Sea.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen greets the crew on a navy ship in July before it sets out to patrol in the South China Sea.
(Taiwan Presidential Office )

In July, Beijing’s top Taiwan policy advisor predicted a “severe” effect on relations after the island’s navy misfired a supersonic antiship missile. The missile killed a Taiwanese fishing boat captain in the strait but did not reach waters controlled by the People’s Liberation Army.

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China had already said in June that it was suspending talks between two foundations that have served as de facto embassies, representing each government in the absence of formal diplomacy. Just before that, a Taiwanese indigenous children’s choir said its performance scheduled in Guangzhou, China, was canceled.

This month, Kenya deported five Taiwanese citizens to China, drawing a “strong protest” from the Foreign Ministry in Taipei. Beijing persuaded Kenya to hand over the Taiwanese, who will probably be charged with fraud, on the premise that they all belong under one flag, that of China. Earlier in the year, Kenya and Malaysia turned over Taiwanese citizens to China on suspicion they were targeting Chinese mainlanders in scams.

Group tourist arrivals from China have declined 30% since April after reaching a record 3.4 million last year, the government’s Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei says. Travel agents say Chinese authorities are urging tour agencies to issue fewer Taiwan travel permits.

That, in turn, has hurt large hotels, mid-level restaurants and tour bus operators, said Kuo Tzu-yi, director of the Pingtung Tourism Assn. in southern Taiwan. His association covers Kenting National Park, a strip of beaches popular with mainland Chinese tourists. Crowds there had visibly thinned by mid-July.

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China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war of the 1940s to Mao Tse-tung’s Communists. The Nationalists retrenched in Taipei. The two sides have been separately ruled since then. Both have robust capitalist economies, but Taiwan is now democratically ruled, while the mainland remains in the grip of the Communist Party.

China hoped Tsai would offer an extension of the upbeat relations of the previous eight years, when Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou agreed to see the two sides as part of one China. That allowed the governments to build trust and sign 23 deals related to trade, transit and investment.

Voters had put Tsai in office partly because her Democratic Progressive Party takes a more cautious view on China than Ma’s Nationalists. Tens of thousands who demonstrated in Taipei in March and April 2014 highlighted growing fear that the Ma government had grown dangerously close to China, which wants the two sides ultimately to unify.

But the absence of talks since Tsai’s inauguration has meant the freezing of any new economic deals. Under Ma, the two sides opened about 800 trade categories to tariff exemptions and allowed 890 direct flights per week, from just a trickle before. China and Taiwan were negotiating a broader pact to slash tariffs before Tsai took office, and an additional 20 agreements were in the pipeline.

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Tsai’s approval ratings have fallen 14 percentage points to 56% since her inauguration.

“It’s almost 100 days after the inauguration and we have to admit cross-strait relations are kind of in a frozen status,” said Wu Chung-li, political science research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taipei.

China may privately be giving Tsai a “probationary period” of about six months, Wu said, after which it might bring pressure to bear on Taiwan’s international relations.

Taiwan should make “concrete efforts for the resumption of cross-strait communication,” China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman, Ma Xiaoguang, said this month, according to the official New China News Agency.

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Tsai’s government has discussed no specific proposals to improve ties with China, saying it needs a clearer idea of Taiwanese public opinion before making any moves. But it’s now reviewing existing regulations on Taiwan-China interaction with a view toward improving them, a government official said.

“We need to know people’s views and keep listening to other people’s voices,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman for Taiwan’s China policymaking body, the Mainland Affairs Council. “With so much flexibility and goodwill, we think China should show support and understanding.”

Much of the public likes Tsai’s campaign pledge to avoid unifying with China or declaring legal independence but worry that her China policy “doesn’t specify any details,” said Liu, the professor from Fo Guang University.

Taiwanese can tolerate “cold” relations with China for now because Chinese economic growth has fallen since 2011, offering less than it once did to the export-reliant island, said Ku Chung-hwa, a standing board member with Citizen Congress Watch, a legislative monitoring group.

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“The expectations for Tsai aren’t that high, and as long as relations with mainland China develop without conflict they can slip into a cold spell,” Ku said. “They have little obvious impact on people’s livelihoods now.”

Tsai’s stance, so far, is less confrontational than that of former President Chen Shui-bian, a member of Tsai’s party who was in office from 2000 to 2008. Chen advocated legal independence from China, which in turn told Taiwan it had not ruled out use of military force.

“The question that arises is whether Beijing can tolerate an indefinite stagnation of relations,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will ultimately decide what to do, but may be interested in first shoring up China’s economy and quieting international opposition to his country’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, Roy said.

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“Xi has incentives not to seek an early and decisive showdown with Taipei,” he said.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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