China, Taiwan on collision course over Hong Kong

Beijing and Taipei trade barbs and threats over Hong Kong clampdown that could soon spiral into conflict

A woman holds a Taiwanese flag as she joins others at a rally to mark Taiwan's National Day, in the Tsim Sha Tsui district in Hong Kong on October 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong
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China’s swift and forceful implementation of a draconian new national security law in Hong Kong has raised the prospect that Taiwan could be next in Beijing’s sights.

Chinese warplanes have violated Taiwan’s airspace on an almost a daily basis in recent weeks, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is set to conduct a large-scale drill in August which is expected to simulate invasion of Taiwanese-held islands in the South China Sea.

In response, Taiwan’s defense forces carried out major live-fire drills on July 2 on the country’s west coast, a likely site of any attempted Chinese amphibious invasion.

Taiwan portrayed the exercises as a simulation of “enemy annihilation on the shore” and as a demonstration of its military’s ability to “prevail along the coastline” in the event of a full-scale Chinese invasion.

The exercises saw Taiwan deploy its state-of-the-art American-made military hardware, including Apache attack helicopters and F-16V jetfighters.

Accusing President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration of nurturing a “separatist plot”, top Chinese leaders have openly warned that a military option is on the table.

If anything, the Taiwanese government’s criticism of Beijing’s latest action and its offer of support to Hong Kong protesters and asylum-seekers has placed the island nation on a collision course with China. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that must eventually be incorporated to the mainland.

“We are very disappointed that China is not able to carry out its promises,” exclaimed Tsai on June 30 while characterizing Beijing’s new security law as a violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“It proves that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible,” she added, criticizing a model that Beijing has offered to her predecessors in a bid to reincorporate Taiwan under communist China.

Much to Beijing’s chagrin, Taiwan has actively courted fleeing dissidents and businessmen in Hong Kong. In the first five months of this year, the number of Hong Kong residents settling in Taiwan almost doubled compared to last year, while investments have seen a 25% rise over the same period.

“We hope to attract capital and professionals from Hong Kong to Taiwan, especially talent in the financial industry,” said Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong.

To attract Hong Kong’s footloose businessmen, Taiwan requires as little as $6 million new Taiwan dollar (NT) (US$200,000) in investment to receive residency rights. In contrast, other nationalities are required to invest more than twice that amount (NT$15 million).

Of greater concern to the mainland, however, is Taiwan’s active harboring of Hong Kong dissidents, while advising its citizens to avoid travel to Hong Kong.

Chiu Chui-Cheng, deputy head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, criticized China’s new security law as “the most outrageous in history” with troubling implications for even foreign visitors.

“Taiwan people should avoid making unnecessary visits to or transits via Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland,” he added

With the introduction of China’s security law, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups such as Demosisto and the more hardline Hong Kong National Front have decided to disband. The latter, which advocates for Hong Kong’s full independence from China, is partially relocating to Taiwan.

Taipei opened on July 1 the new Taiwan Hong Kong Service Exchange Office to facilitate large-scale migration of Hongkongers to the island.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council minister, Chen Ming-tong, described the move as “not only a statement on Taiwan’s support to Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom, but also highlights our determination to care for Hong Kong people.”

In response, Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, described the island nation’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, as a “black hand” which seeks to destabilize Hong Kong.

“What the DPP authorities said was an undisguised distortion of facts, which served only to reveal its vicious intention to mess up Hong Kong and seek independence for Taiwan,” she said, warning the new Chinese security law would “surely cut off the ‘black hands’ of the DPP trying to mess up Hong Kong.”

“Any person or force that attempts to undermine China’s national sovereignty, security, development interests, and the prosperity and stability of [Hong Kong] will … suffer the consequences,” she added.

With global nations, including Taiwan ally the US, still rattled by the pandemic, China has faced relatively little substantive resistance in its latest move to crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Encouraged by its repressive success in Hong Kong, analysts now wonder whether Beijing may consider a more muscular approach to reincorporating Taiwan.

Tian Feilong, a Chinese academic specializing on Taiwan, praised the new Chinese law for “cut[ting] off all the links of confluence between Hong Kong independence and Taiwan independence.”

He asserted that Taiwan is the next major priority for Chinese President Xi Jinping. “The weight of the Taiwan problem in his heart, the urgency to solve it and the sense of mission will be even stronger,” the Chinese academic told the New York Times.

With rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits, America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security will be crucial in the months ahead. In recent years, Washington has approved major defense deals for Taiwan while also stepping up high-level diplomatic contacts with Taipei.

But there are concerns in Taipei over US President Donald Trump’s resolve to assist Taiwan in the event of contingencies, including an attempted Chinese invasion.

“One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to the Resolute desk [in the Oval Office] and say, ‘This is China,’” lamented former US National Security Advisor John Bolton in his newly-released memoir.

“So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally.”

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