China-Taiwan Relations Turning Sour

If indeed there had ever been a “Chiwan” on the horizon – a tighter relationship between China and Taiwan – it is fast receding, with Taipei affronting Beijing on almost weekly intervals, lately at least partly because of China’s unbending opposition to universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

In August, President Ma Ying-jeou of the previously China-friendly Kuomintang sacked his second-highest-ranking negotiator with China, Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chang Hsien-yao, on eyebrow-raising claims that China had recruited him as a spy.

But after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced that rank-and-file Hong Kong voters will not be allowed to pick a candidate for the territory’s chief executive in 2017, Ma irritated Beijing by stating that Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and rule of law will “receive the full backing of the Taiwanese.” Taiwan has full democratic suffrage.

Before these unprecedented snubs came months in which Ma had fought unsuccessfully to push through legislature a China-Taiwan service trade agreement although the KMT holds a very comfortable majority.

“When Ma Ying-jeou became president, he had indeed wanted to achieve unification with China,” said Chang An-lo, aka the White Wolf, the leader of Taiwan’s China Unification Promotion Party, in an interview with Asia Sentinel. “But he has since changed his mind and is now working hard on delaying it.”

A former gangster boss who hid in China for years, Chang is believed to maintain such close ties to high-ranking Chinese officials that his view of Ma likely reflects theirs.

After Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chang was ousted as a suspected Chinese spy, Chinese officials have been at pains to play down the significance of the incident, with Chinese media portraying it as a reflection of KMT infighting nurtured by Ma’s very weak domestic standing.

However, Ma’s Hong Kong comments were obviously more difficult to brush under the carpet. Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office blasted Ma by speaking of “a minority of people” trying to “tarnish the one country, two systems policy, damage Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and hamper the development of the cross-strait relationship.”

The Taiwanese general public seems to be in broad agreement that they mistrust the mainland. Despite the signing of at least 20 trade agreements, a July poll conducted by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council found that only 33.4 percent of Taiwanese surveyed thought the Chinese government was friendly toward the Taiwanese, while 50.3 percent believed it to be unfriendly. Taiwan’s youth are even less enthusiastic about a close relationship with the mainland.

As other recent signs pointed at cooling bilateral relations, trade talks scheduled for August were delayed, apparently by the Chinese side, and Taiwanese media reported that China’s invitation to Taiwan for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leadership meeting in Beijing next month is now not in line with protocol, so that it too amounted to a snub. Meanwhile, Chinese surveillance aircraft intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) four times on a single day, breaking with the decade-long practice of detour.

“Since the Sunflower Movement [through which students earlier this year prevented the ratification of the China-Taiwan service trade agreement], there has been a freeze in the rapprochement policy and a gradual deterioration of relations across the Strait,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“On the surface, contacts and exchanges of visit continue in a friendly atmosphere and the service trade agreement remains on the table, but in reality, relations have reached a plateau and soured.”

Cabestan believes that Ma’s sudden turnabout is driven by electoral worries. In view of the coming multiple local elections in November and the 2016 presidential election – both of which are expected to deliver a thrashing given the current unpopularity of the KMT – “the party must show its attachment to Taiwan’s interests and its firmness and unwillingness to enter into political negotiations with China,” he said.

The US factor?

Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, believes that the KMT’s new attempts to cool China ties significantly is part of a calculus aiming at staying in power. By distancing itself from China now, Chen said, the party is seeking to preempt US support for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in coming elections.

“Ma was reelected in 2012 after Washington influenced Taiwan’s public opinion in his favor [by allegedly leaking to the press that it distrusts the DPP’s candidate Tsai Ying-wen],” Chen said. “An article by influential George Washington University professor Robert Sutter published in July suggests that the US again considers interfering, but this time around for the DPP, against the KMT.”

Sutter recommends that in order to make China stop its aggressive “salami slicing” tactic against rival claimants in the East and South China seas, Washington should devote more attention to Taiwan as an area of acute sensitivity for China. According to Sutter, a more active US posture in support of Taiwanese free expression and identity represented by the Sunflower Movement “could further shift Taiwan politics in favor of the opposition against the unpopular government of President Ma Ying-jeou… China would face costly and difficult reevaluation of its reasonably successful policy toward Taiwan, should the opposition win the 2016 presidential election. “

“The Ma government publicly refuted Sutter, proving they have taken note of his policy recommendations, and Taiwan’s top diplomat in the US, Shen Lyu-Shun, gave an interview to the Washington Times shortly afterwards, pleading for more US support for Taiwan,” Chen said. “That interview was a tool in a new policy as such interviews always are, with Ma damaging China’s position in Hong Kong being just another one aiming at not being dropped by the US.”

Jens Kastner is a Taiwan-based journalist