China sends sharp warnings to Taiwan's new president as she preps for office

Beijing had 45 Taiwanese citizens deported from Kenya to China on fraud charges, a move Taiwan calls 'kidnapping.' It's just one of the ways that Beijing is sending a message to President-elect Tsai Ing-wen to not try to distance Taiwan from mainland China.

Ng Han Guan/AP
Tourists prepare to take photos in a retails area with a Taiwan theme showing a map of Taiwan in Beijing, Wednesday.

When the Chinese government persuaded Kenya to deport 45 Taiwanese citizens to Beijing recently as part of a fraud investigation, outraged officials in Taipei accused China of kidnapping.

But the controversial expulsions are a veiled warning as to how the mainland is ready to treat Taiwan under its next president, Tsai Ing-wen, say analysts here, if she abandons the current government’s Beijing-friendly policies and insists on maintaining a cautious distance from China, as she has pledged to do.

Political experts see the deportations as another signal of Beijing’s intentions, following cuts in the number of permits issued to Taiwan-bound tourists from the mainland and a suspension of fish imports. Some expect more forceful actions if President-elect Tsai snubs China after taking office May 20.

“These are subtle messages without an official overt condemnation or a harshly-worded warning toward the administration to be inaugurated,” says Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. “These are like a velvet glove with an iron fist in it.”

Taiwan’s half-trillion-dollar economy depends heavily on trade, investment and tourism ties with mainland China, its giant neighbor. A breakdown in trust could, in the worst case, revive fears of military conflict. Beijing claims the right to use force to make Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, a fully fledged part of the People’s Republic.

“People’s attitude is nervousness, but not too severe yet,” says Ku Chung-hua, a leader of the Taipei-based political action group Citizens’ Congress Watch. “Taiwanese will make some psychological preparations.”

Political rivals since the 1949 Chinese revolution, Beijing and Taipei called an informal truce in 2008 under Taiwan’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou. Mr. Ma had enchanted China by starting a first-ever dialogue, on conditions agreeable to both sides. Beijing saw the dialogue, though it focused mostly on economic matters, as a prelude to eventual unification.

President-elect Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party takes a very different view of the future, refusing to accept that Taiwan and the mainland both belong to the same country. Ms. Tsai advocates a greater degree of the autonomy that Taiwan has pursued since it split from mainland China in the civil war that ended with 1949 revolution.

Messages from the mainland

Beijing is quietly expressing its disapproval. After seven years of fast and steady growth in the number of tourists allowed by Beijing to visit Taiwan, the quota of permits was cut by 1.4 percent in the first two months of this year from its level the same time last year.

Travel agents in Taipei say arrivals began declining shortly before the widely predicted election of Ms. Tsai on Jan. 16, presaging possible difficulties for Taiwan’s service sector.

Beijing also raised hackles in Taiwan last month when it established diplomatic ties with The Gambia, a former Taiwan ally in Africa. Taiwan and China informally agreed in 2008, shortly after Mr. Ma’s election, to stop buying each other’s diplomatic allies with development aid. Though The Gambia had cut its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan in 2013, it had refrained until this year from recognizing Beijing.

On the commercial front, two Chinese buyers this month suspended a five-year deal to import milkfish, a signature Taiwanese agricultural product. Also in April, China said Taiwan’s government could apply for membership in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank only through China's finance ministry, rather than via the bank's board of governors as other members do – a step that Taiwanese leaders said strips Taiwan of dignity and equality.

Membership in that multinational lending institution would give Taiwanese firms access to construction contracts around Asia.

Subtle shifts

For now, China has taken actions that it can explain without acknowledging their political import. The milkfish importers said cold weather in Taiwan had driven up prices, for example. And Beijing said it had the right to take the 45 deportees from Kenya because they had flown to Africa from mainland China and are suspected of phone fraud, though Taiwan says the deportations violated a 2011 deal to work together on crime issues.

China has so far avoided offending most Taiwanese voters with more radical moves, such as curtailing direct flights to the mainland, revoking export tariff cuts, or publicly deploying new missiles aimed at the island.

But analysts here say that a year ago Beijing was noticeably friendlier, and that it could easily become unfriendlier if Tsai ignores Beijing’s insistence that relations must be based on a 1992 agreement between the two sides that each of them is part of a single country. President Ma’s acceptance of that principle has been the foundation on which he has improved relations with Beijing over the past seven years. Tsai has indicated she does not accept it.

“Tsai and her administration will merely talk around the issue as it did during the campaign, not really answering it head-on,” says Sean King, senior vice president with consulting firm Park Strategies in New York. “This will anger Beijing.”

“A few more countries cut off diplomatic relations [with Taipei], that’s to be expected, and we can see that tourists from China will be reduced” if Tsai discards the 1992 agreement and does not offer a workable alternative, says Liu Yi-jiun, a public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “What this country needs is a formal as well as informal communication channel. We just don’t see any official channel.”

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