The new directive by the central government is believed to be aimed at forcing the governments to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing. In the Palau case, geopolitics could also be a consideration.
Travel agencies in China received a government directive on Nov. 16 ordering them to cease all tour groups to the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pacific island-nation of Palau, in what appears to be the latest effort to put pressure on official diplomatic allies of Taiwan.
According to the notice from the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA), travel agencies that continue to promote tours to those destinations will be severely punished. Two travel agencies have reportedly been fined 300,000 yuan (US$45,000) amid inspections launched by government authorities.
The CNTA, which answers directly to the State Council, is in charge of promoting tourism to China and also controls the outflow of Chinese tourists abroad.
The CNTA web site currently lists 127 countries and regions that are approved for Chinese tour groups. None of Taiwan’s 20 diplomatic allies is on the list. Nevertheless, since 2004 Chinese authorities had allowed tour groups to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican.
Both the Holy See and Palau are official diplomatic allies of Taiwan. Despite a thaw in relations under Pope Francis, the Vatican and Beijing have failed to get closer to establishing official diplomatic ties, which would require the Vatican to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The persecution of Christians across China, as well as the ordainment of Bishops by Beijing without the Vatican’s approval, have been major impediments to rapprochement.
It is understood that the new directive is related to politics as a means to further isolate Taiwan and punish countries that continue to have official diplomatic relations with it. According to Radio Free Asia, the travel ban is meant to put pressure on the Vatican to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Since the election of the Taiwan-centric Tsai Ing-wen in January 2016 and souring relations across the Taiwan Strait, both São Tomé and Príncipe and Panama have switched official diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China. The Holy See is Taiwan’s only official diplomatic ally in Europe.
There could also be more to this story than simple cross-Strait politics [as] Palau has gained importance in the U.S.’ strategy in the Asia Pacific.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, President Tsai said during a meeting with a delegation from Palau that more direct flights between Taiwan and its diplomatic ally in the Pacific would be offered starting next year. The island-nation, which gained independence on Oct. 1, 1994, established relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in December 1999.
According to a 2015 report by the South China Morning Post, Chinese tourism to Palau has soared in recent years. Tourism accounts for approximately 85% of Palau’s GDP. Statistics from the Palau Visitors Authority show that in 2015 Chinese, many of them from the wealthy stratum of society, accounted for more than half of arrivals — 87,058 of a total of 161,931 tourists. The number of tourists from Taiwan, meanwhile, dropped to 14,174 in 2015 from 30,080 in 2014, a 50% decrease.
There could also be more to this story than simple cross-Strait politics. Palau has gained importance in the U.S.’ strategy in the Asia Pacific, as the Department of Defense’s 2018 budget request makes clear, providing access to airfields in the second island chain at a time when China has been expanding its military presence in the area. On April 27, Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “I strongly urge Congress to pass legislation to approve and implement the 2010 Palau Compact Review Agreement at the earliest opportunity.” The passage of this legislation, he said, “will have a significant impact on our defense relationship with Palau, and will provide a measurable advantage in our strategic posture in the Western Pacific.”
The House Armed Services Committee has nevertheless defunded a US$123.9 million payment for the agreement. If economic pressure on Palau compelled the island-nation to abandon Taiwan and switch relations with Beijing, the ability of the U.S. military to use Palau to project its presence in the Asia Pacific, especially amid uncertainty over U.S. ties with the Philippines, would most assuredly be compromised.