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Taiwan: Backing away from China's embrace

Taipei has sided with Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters as relations with Beijing continue downward spiral.

| Politics, China, Taiwan, Asia Pacific

Taiwanese students protesting a trade deal with China, occupied the legislature for weeks in March [AP]

By

Jens Kastner

Taipei, Taiwan - As Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests take hold against China's strict rule, Taiwan's president has entered the fray by expressing concern for the former British territory, and denouncing "the one country, two systems" policy that Beijing has long championed.      

President Ma Ying-jeou's comments come as tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters demanding electoral reform swarmed government offices and pledged to shut down its bustling business district through occupation.

"We are worried about the developments in Hong Kong. We are very concerned about how it will affect Hong Kong's future, as well as China's international image," Ma told Talk to Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview. "Hong Kong has already become a global financial centre. Any political turbulence will have significant implications to its economic development."

Ma also expressed Taiwan's concern over China's influence on the self-governed island. His comments were likely to rile Beijing further amid a deterioration of ties in recent months. 

Since the Sunflower movement, there has been a freeze in the rapprochement policy, and a gradual deterioration of relations across the [Taiwan] Strait.

- Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Hong Kong Baptist University

"In the early 1980's the 'one country, two systems' concept was created for Taiwan, not for Hong Kong. But Taiwan has sent a clear message that we do not accept the concept. If the system is good, then we believe it should be 'one country, one system.'"

The two sides have suffered decades of strained relations after China's civil war split the mainland with Chinese nationalists fleeing across the Taiwan Strait to the island. Taiwan has ruled itself since 1949, but China has vowed the two must reunify - by force if necessary.

Ties began to normalise when President Ma's Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party swept into power in 2008 and six years of unprecedented cooperation followed. But it now appears the honeymoon is over.

Rapprochement efforts began to tail off in March after Taiwanese students opposing a service trade pact Taipei signed with China stormed Taiwan's legislature, in what has come to be known as the Sunflower Occupation.

Students occupied the debating chamber for three weeks amid battles with riot police, and they received substantial public backing during a wave of anti-China sentiment, leaving little manoeuvring room for Ma and his KMT to stay the cozy-up-to-China course.

Reached a plateau

Since then, relations have further soured. Taiwan recently conducted its annual Han Kuang military exercises, gaming a China invasion. This year's manoeuvres were much punchier, featuring the largest maritime live fire drills held by the island's armed forces in a decade.

Allegations also erupted in August of Chinese fighter jets entering Taiwanese airspace, which were denied by Beijing. Ma also has accused China of recruiting as a spy a top negotiator with Beijing, Mainland Affairs Council deputy minister Chang Hsien-yao.

Ma's public backing of the Hong Kong democracy movement is certain to only exacerbate the situation. 

Calls to the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing, China's body in charge of Taiwan-related policies, went unanswered on Monday.

Taiwan recently held its largest military exercises in a decade [EPA]

Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang earlier this month denounced Taiwan's support for those in Hong Kong pushing for democratic reform. He was quoted by the Taiwanese press as saying Taipei's stance would "tarnish the one country, two systems policy, damage Hong Kong's stability and prosperity, and hamper the development of the cross-strait relationship".

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Taiwan analyst and professor of international relations at Hong Kong Baptist University, said improvement in Taiwan-China relations had reached its peak.

"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," he said. "Since the Sunflower movement, there has been a freeze in the rapprochement policy, and a gradual deterioration of relations across the [Taiwan] Strait."

Cabestan told Al Jazeera the military drills, the unexpected sacking of the alleged spy Chang, and the lack of liberalisation of Chinese investments in Taiwan all go in the same direction, "a more cautious relationship with China".

Domestic concerns

For President Ma, the relationship with China has domestic implications with multiple local elections around the corner in November. Some opinion polls suggest KMT will sustain a beating in these elections - partly because of a string of ugly corruption scandals and a growing wealth gap on the island - and other surveys indicate a further alignment with China at this stage would do the KMT's electoral prospects little good. 

According to one poll published in July by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which is Taiwan's body responsible for China-related policies, 50.3 percent perceive the Chinese government as "hostile" to the Taiwanese people. Another MAC poll found a mere 1.8 percent of the population wants unification immediately, with 6.6 percent only accepting it in the distant future. This comes despite years of China extending olive branches across the Taiwan Strait.

"That China-Taiwan relations are cooler these days can largely be attributed to the fact that Taiwan is in a campaign mode," said John F Copper, a Taiwan analyst and professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

"The KMT does not want to be portrayed as too close to or too dependent on the People's Republic of China, as their domestic political opponents have been doing fairly effectively recently."

The students' democracy movement we see emerging in Hong Kong is what the Sunflower movement has brought to Chinese-speaking societies.

- Kevin Wang, Sunflower movement member

Copper also said Ma believes he has the backing of the United States in terms of the island's relations with China. "Taipei follows America's foreign policy closely. That's why the Ma administration probably assumes a little dust up with Beijing won't matter in the context of China having to worry about the US more these days," he said.

Cold relations, really?

However, Kevin Wang - a PhD student and a member of the Sunflower movement - expressed reservations about the apparent freeze in ties between Taipei and Beijing.

"Relations between them [KMT-party led government] and mainland China might not be as cold as they seem," Wang said. "The KMT keeps things low profile for the time being because of the November elections. But actually, they are simply trying to expand the fronts where the Sunflower movement needs to fight on to dilute our power."

He highlighted the government's intention to allow cars with Chinese license plates on Taiwan's streets from October, a move he described as China's continued infiltration of Taiwanese society.

Wang warned what's happened in Hong Kong could be a harbinger for Taiwan's democracy. "How Beijing betrays Hong Kong serves as a warning to Taiwan that if we get too close and unification does indeed occur, the same kind of betrayal will also also to us."

He said Hong Kong's protest movement was inspired by March's Taiwanese student-led demonstration that occupied the legislature.

"The students' democracy movement we see emerging in Hong Kong is what the Sunflower movement has brought to Chinese-speaking societies," he said. 

Source: Al Jazeera

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