A regular feature of Taiwan Sentinel, ChinaWatch examines developments in China in the areas of internal politics, economics and trade, geopolitics and Taiwan engagement and analyzes their advantages or disadvantages for Taiwan’s standing in the region and the world. This feature is based on the premise that what happens in China has direct relevance for the durability of Taiwan’s de facto independence. ChinaWatch is updated monthly.
Taiwan and the Vatican: A Wider Fallout?
After many months of intensive negotiations, China and the Vatican may finally be nearing a deal on diplomatic recognition. In early February no less a light than former Hong Kong Roman Catholic bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen accused the Holy See of “selling out” the Catholic Church in China. Cardinal Zen’s comments appear to reflect growing concern that the church is giving way to China’s longstanding demand that it — and not the Vatican — have the final say in naming Chinese bishops. Most observers believe that once the nomination question is settled, China and the Vatican will establish formal relations.
Should relations between the Vatican and China indeed go forward, Taiwan would lose its last remaining diplomatic ally in Europe. This in itself would be quite a significant blow, though the relatively small number of Taiwanese Catholics (many of whom are concentrated in aboriginal communities) would still have the benefit of a robust Church presence on the island. Still, Taiwan could easily be exposed to significant diplomatic damage, not least because many of its remaining diplomatic allies have relatively large Catholic populations, who might be tempted to endorse a loosening of diplomatic ties with the island in exchange for perceived economic benefits. This is particularly true in Latin American and the Caribbean, where nine of the countries that recognize Taiwan — Belize, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and St. Lucia — have Catholic populations of at least 40 percent.
Outside of Latin America and the Caribbean, three other Taiwanese diplomatic allies also have large Roman Catholic populations. These are Kiribati (56 percent), Palau (45 percent) and Nauru (33 percent). They too might be pulled in China’s diplomatic direction, also for economic reasons, though the relative lack of Catholic Church clout in the western Pacific would seem to mitigate against this.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, there is little it can do to hold back what appears to be the implacable desire of the Vatican to finally enter into diplomatic relations with China. In this regard it is motivated primarily by its wish to gain a solid foothold among China’s estimated 12 million Roman Catholics, who are rapidly losing ground to the helter-skelter growth of Protestantism in the country.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the recent progress in China-Vatican relations comes amid stepped up Chinese efforts to further isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world. Since Tsai Ing-wen became president in May of 2016, China has poached two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and also taken concrete steps to deprive it of observer status in the World Health Assembly (WHA), one of its few remaining international organization footholds.
The isolation efforts are part and parcel of a three pronged Chinese program to punish President Tsai for her continuing refusal to accept the “one China” framework, under which Taiwan would acknowledge that it is part of Chinese territory. The other two prongs are intimidation — including stepped-up military surveillance missions around Taiwan’s periphery — and de-legitimatization, which focuses on attacking the notion of Taiwanese sovereignty. The best example of the de-legitimatization campaign is China’s recent insistence that foreign companies either extirpate all references to Taiwanese nationhood in their official communications, or face commercial sanctions. Not surprisingly, many have complied with this Chinese demand.
Taiwan Retaliates Over Unilateral Chinese Air Route Move
After months of looking on helplessly at China’s escalating campaign to undermine its authority, the Taiwanese government of President Tsai has finally struck back, taking strong action to protest Beijing’s recent decision to unilaterally impose new flight routes in the Taiwan Strait.
The government’s action came in late January when Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) said it was withholding approval from two Chinese flag carriers — China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air — to add a total of 176 flights to meet increased demand for cross-strait travel during the upcoming lunar New Year holiday.
The CAA said it had made the decision to protest China’s Jan. 4 move to open four new civilian flight paths in the Taiwan Strait without first consulting with Taiwanese authorities. Such consultation is mandated by a 2015 agreement between The Taiwanese and Chinese air transport associations, which stipulates that any decision to amend or modify existing flight paths needs to receive the imprimatur of the counter-party before going into effect.
The flight paths involved are the north-south M503 route, which China claims is meant to relieve congestion for flights traveling between Hong Kong and Shanghai, and three other paths that follow east-west trajectories.
Buttressing Taiwan’s decision to push back against China’s unilateral decision to open the four new flight routes in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. is selling Taiwan 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles for use in defending Taiwanese air space.
The FIM-92 Stinger is a portable air defense system operating on the principle of infrared homing. It can be fired from either the shoulder, or from ground vehicles and helicopters.
Stingers have been in use since 1981, and are currently in the inventory of 30 countries around the world.
In the short term, the CAA decision on withholding permission for China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Air to add Chinese New Year flights across the Taiwan Strait will probably cause considerable disruption for China-based Taiwan businesspeople and others eager to return home for New Year celebrations.
In the longer term, however, it may be seen as something of a turning point in the Tsai administration’s efforts to hit back at China for its escalating campaign to belittle her government at almost every turn. Among other areas the campaign has honed in on Taiwan’s international space (by poaching two Taiwanese diplomatic allies and denying it observer representation at last year’s WHA meeting in Switzerland); on its legal prerogatives (by denying it access to a Taiwanese national arrested and ultimately convicted on trumped up charges of “undermining state security”) and on its national security (by drastically increasing the number of military missions undertaken in close proximity to Taiwanese territory).
While it is difficult to evaluate the precise effect of all these moves, there is little question that they are aimed at exacerbating the feeling among many Taiwanese that they are fighting a losing battle in their ongoing attempt to maintain their island’s de facto independence against China.
Taiwan Deploying New Missile Batteries to Combat Chinese Threat
Taiwan is deploying new missile batteries in vulnerable east coast locations to cope with a significant uptick in Chinese offensive operations against the island.
The Ministry of National Defense (MND) says it will expand its missile defense perimeter to include Orchid Island and Green Island off of Taiwan’s southeast coast and beef up existing installations in Hualien and Taitung counties, both on the eastern side of the island. The moves reflect growing concern over the new found ability of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to deploy military assets in areas that were previously beyond its capabilities.
According to the MND, Orchid Island and Green Island will receive MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile batteries. The batteries will be supplemented by additional MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missiles and Taiwanese developed Sky Bow surface-to-air anti-ballistic missiles in Hualien and Taitung counties. The MND apparently hopes that the new installations will mitigate the need for the Taiwan air force to constantly scramble fighters to respond to growing Chinese incursions in the area.
MND statistics show a marked increase in Chinese offensive operations around Taiwan in the period between August 2016 — shortly after President Tsai took power — and December 2017. During the period MND tracked at least 26 Chinese aerial exercises around Taiwan, 15 of which encircled the island. At the same time, MND said, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted four long range exercises around Taiwan — two west of the median line in the Taiwan Strait and two others near Taiwan’s east coast.
China acted expeditiously to mock the installation of the new Hawk batteries, with the CCP mouthpiece Global Times newspaper calling the system “ancient,” and deriding its ability to cope with the firepower of advanced Chinese fighter jets like the J-20. Developed some 60 years ago, Hawk missiles carry a relatively modest 54 kilogram warhead, and have a range of only 50 kilometers. They were phased out by the U.S. military 16 years ago, but are still in service with the armed forces of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Japan, among others.
Many Taiwanese analysts link the increase in Chinese offensive operations against Taiwan to the Tsai administration, which China despises for refusing to accept the “one China” framework. President Tsai has accepted the validity of the Republic of China Constitution, but even though that stipulation is effectively tantamount to accepting “one China,” Beijing remains dissatisfied.
China Raises Pettiness Stakes in Response to Hualien Earthquake
In responding to the Feb. 6 earthquake in Hualien county, China has once again shown that it will go to almost any depths to register its unhappiness with the Taiwanese government of President Tsai Ing-wen and Taiwan’s allies in the region.
Following the 6.4 magnitude quake, which took at least 17 lives and caused significant property damage in northeastern Taiwan, Beijing chided Japan for supposedly addressing Taiwanese officials by their official titles in the midst of coordinating relief efforts.
Japan was the only foreign country whose offer of relief assistance was accepted by the Taiwanese government. This reflected the government’s belief that it could deal effectively with the earthquake’s devastating impact more or less on its own. Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang said the Japanese offer was accepted only because it involved the deployment of high-tech body-heat detection equipment that Taiwan itself did not possess.
An offer of assistance from China — among other countries — was politely rejected by Taiwanese authorities.
In reacting to the activities of a seven-member Japanese relief team on Taiwanese soil, the Chinese foreign ministry lodged an official complaint with Japan, saying it was trying to create “one China, one-Taiwan under the pretext of disaster relief and condolences.” According to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, the complaint reflected China’s unhappiness that messages from the Japanese government to Taiwanese officials contained those officials’ formal titles, which by China’s nationalistic logic could be interpreted to indicate some sort of Japanese recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty.
Japan has recognized Beijing as the seat of China’s government for almost 50 years, though it does maintain a large non-official representative office in Taipei.
Despite Taiwan’s formal rejection of Chinese government assistance to deal with the after effects of the Hualien quake, Taipei left the door open to informal assistance from the mainland. This includes the provision of cash donations from the Chinese Red Cross, as well as from The Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (China’s semi-official body responsible for handling cross-strait affairs) and from local governments in Fujian Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Trump Administration Test on Taiwan May Be Coming Soon
A major test of American Taiwan policy appears to be on the horizon, following passage by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the Taiwan Travel Act. The bill has already been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. If it passes the full Senate it would then go to the White House for President Trump’s signature.
The Taiwan Travel Act is meant to upgrade official exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan. It allows American government officials to travel to Taiwan to meet with their counterparts there and also permits senior Taiwanese functionaries to come to the U.S. for discussions with senior American officials, including those in the State Department and the Pentagon.
Taiwan visits by senior American officials are extremely rare because a succession of American administrations has been unwilling to risk Chinese ire by sanctioning them. China views the existence of diplomatic relations between it and Washington as providing it with effective veto power over Sino-Taiwanese personnel exchanges.
Then Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited Taiwan in 2014, becoming the first Cabinet-level official to do so in 14 years. No American official of comparable level has visited Taiwan since.
China has already expressed strong opposition to the Taiwan Travel Act. That opposition will probably intensify in the run-up to a full Senate vote on the issue, which is expected to take place sometime in March.
Papua New Guinea Caves to Chinese Pressure
on Port Moresby Representative Office
In the latest example of China’s continuing efforts to constrict Taiwan’s already limited international space, Beijing has convinced the government of Papua New Guinea to force Taiwan to excise the “Republic of China” moniker from its Port Moresby representative office, and to cease using diplomatic license plates on vehicles belonging to its representatives in the Pacific nation.
China’s foreign ministry thanked the PNG government on Feb. 11, saying that “China’s government expresses its high recognition and appreciation of Papua New Guinea’s following of the one China principle when dealing with Taiwan-related problems.”
Under the terms of the new order, the Taiwan office in Port Moresby will now be known as The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Papua New Guinea. It was previously The Trade Mission of the Republic of China (on Taiwan) in Papua New Guinea.
Taiwan’s representative office in Papua New Guinea was opened in 1990. Over the past 28 years exchanges between the sides have concentrated on agricultural and medical technology.
Since the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwanese president in May of 2016, China has moved expeditiously to constrict Taiwan’s international space, poaching two of its diplomatic allies, and ending its observer participation in the annual meeting of the WHA in Geneva.
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