First official Chinese visit to Taiwan in three years underscores strained ties

The first group of Chinese officials visiting Taiwan in three years hid from the public eye at the weekend, illustrating how pandemic border closures and rising military tensions have exacerbated the breakdown in communication with Beijing.

After being greeted by protesters upon arrival in Taipei on Saturday, the six-member delegation from Shanghai’s municipal government failed to appear at a scheduled visit to the lantern festival, a celebration of the lunar new year, in the Taiwanese capital the same night.

According to a schedule shared with Taipei municipal lawmakers, Li Xiaodong, deputy head of Shanghai’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and five other officials were due to visit cultural venues in Taiwan’s capital.

They are expected to hold talks with mayor Chiang Wan-an, from the opposition party Kuomintang. But the Taipei municipal government declined to provide any information on the trip.

The sensitivity surrounding the visit highlights how difficult it has become even for the Kuomintang — a party which embraces a Chinese identity and has a chance to win the next presidential election in 2024 — to engage with Beijing after China’s escalating military threats towards Taiwan.

China curtailed most official exchanges with Taiwan, even stopping its citizens from visiting as tourists, after President Tsai-Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party took office in 2016.

Yet local Chinese officials still maintained contact with Taiwan municipal and county governments run by the KMT until early 2020, when Tsai’s government closed the country’s borders to non-residents to stop the spread of Covid-19.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to invade if the island refuses to submit under its control indefinitely.

Taiwan’s central government approved the Shanghai delegation’s visit on the condition that the group not make any political statements.

A senior Taiwanese official involved in China policy said the government wanted Beijing’s visits to resume gradually, in part to avoid undermining Taiwan’s national security and manage lingering pandemic risks.

“The heightened level of hostility China has been showing towards us and the military threat are one factor in our considerations, although not the only one,” he said.

The Shanghai officials kicked off their visit on the heels of a trip to China by Andrew Hsia, a Kuomintang party vice chair and former diplomat, who met with Beijing’s top Taiwan policy officials 10 days ago.

China staged unprecedented week-long military exercises around Taiwan last August after Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taipei despite Beijing’s objections.

The People’s Liberation Army has since intimidated the country with more frequent and wide-ranging military manoeuvres. Taiwan’s military detected 24 Chinese military aircraft operating around the island in the 24 hours to Saturday morning, the highest level of such activity since February 1.

Taiwan’s government counted only 18,849 Chinese visits in the first 11 months of last year — down from 2.7mn in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, and 4.1mn in 2015, the peak of Chinese tourism to the country under Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, who promoted closer ties with China.

Analysts said that the breakdown of almost all contact had raised the risk of conflict.

“All sorts of exchanges have become incredibly fraught since 2016, and Covid put the nail in the coffin of cross-Strait understanding. There is so much confusion, misrecognition and miscommunication,” said Ian Rowen, an associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University.

“But having fear around any sort of contact and exchange will absolutely magnify misunderstanding. That is terrifying to consider.”

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