- Lifted by US support for its presence on world stage and empowered by voters at home, Taiwan’s pro-independence government continues face-off with Beijing
- Opposing Taipei is the ‘one-China’ principle, but analysts say there must be compromise between neighbours before stand-off becomes confrontation
First it was residual anti-mainland sentiment from a fiercely fought presidential election in January.
Now disagreement between Beijing and Taipei over the repatriation of Taiwanese from the epicentre of a deadly coronavirus outbreak is piling pressure on already strained relations across the Taiwan Strait.
Analysts said that failure to resolve such disputes could turn stalemate into confrontation, with Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, winning a second four-year term as the island's leader in a clear rejection of the pro-Beijing Kuomintang.
The repatriation dispute erupted when Beijing ignored Taipei's request to airlift about 500 people from Wuhan, despite allowing various countries to allow such flights.
Mainland China regards Taiwan as its province, not a country in its own right, so rescues would be a matter for Beijing to decide. This view extended to the island's relationship with the World Health Organisation (WHO) as Taiwanese scientists asked to be allowed to help develop a strategy to tackle the coronavirus.
While countries petitioned the WHO to let Taiwan take part in its talks, Beijing sent 247 Taiwanese home on February 3.
But Beijing came under fire from the island when one passenger on the flight tested positive for the virus.
Tens of thousands of Taiwanese used social media to hit out at Beijing for what they claimed was a "Trojan horse" to test the island's preparations.
Tsai's government questioned the way mainland authorities handled the repatriation " some of those who joined the flight were not on the original fly list, while passengers were crammed onto the China Eastern Airlines plane with no protection except surgical masks.
Taiwan says it joined WHO virus meeting without Beijing's approval
The severity of the outbreak forced Beijing to compromise over Taipei's place in a two-day WHO forum in Geneva last week as an "online participant", meaning Taiwan now had a role in global efforts to contain the virus.
The mainland's foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Taiwan's participation was made possible only by Beijing's agreement.
"Taiwan region's participation in WHO technical activities … must be arranged by the Chinese side … through consultations under the 'one-China' principle," ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Taiwanese foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said the involvement of Taiwanese experts in the forum was the result of direct negotiations between the island and the WHO.
Analysts said political calculation played a part in the way both sides dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
While the Taiwanese government hoped that evacuation flights would strengthen its pro-independence credentials, Beijing tried to keep the island's health affairs under its one-China umbrella.
"That's why the Chinese communists changed their initial attitude by sending the (first batch) of the Taiwanese back because they wanted to create the impression that they are responsible in taking care of the health of Taiwanese public," said Fan Shih-ping, a professor of political science at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.
Fan said Beijing also wanted to tackle the swell of international support for Taiwan's membership of the WHO.
Repatriations to Taiwan from Wuhan remained unresolved. Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, accused the island of picking faults with Beijing's efforts, regardless of the safety of the Taiwanese who remained.
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He accused the Tsai government of trying to shirk its responsibilities and stalling Beijing's efforts to send home the more than 970 Taiwanese citizens who were still in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province.
Ma said that after the first repatriation Beijing sent a list of 979 names to the Taiwanese government. These people were expected to leave mainland China in five groups between February 6 and 8.
But the evacuation was aborted because the island said it could not accommodate so many people in medical observation at such short notice, Ma said, adding that Taipei must be held responsible for putting its people at risk.
Chen Ming-tong, head of the island's Mainland Affairs Council, said Taiwan asked that the elderly, minors and those with chronic diseases be made priority cases for flights home from Wuhan, but only 50 people who fitted that description were put forward for the first flight.
Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of international strategic and US studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said failed efforts between Taiwan and mainland China to deal with the outbreak would only worsen cross-strait relations.
"The outbreak occurred shortly after Taiwan's highly tense presidential election and anti-China emotion was still around," Huang said, adding that this would lead Taiwan to distance itself further from the mainland.
He said that support for Taiwan's international visibility from the US government was at a level "that has never seen for decades". This included William Lai Ching-te's "private" Washington trip this month, when the vice-president-designate became the first high-level Taiwanese figure to meet National Security Council officials in more than 40 years.
This, and Taiwan's renewed ties to the WHO, could prompt Beijing to retaliate, Huang said. "The impact would further strain cross-strait relations or push back the time for cross-strait rapprochement," he said.
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Wang Kung-yi, a political-science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said that both sides needed to talk because there was a danger that the stalemate could break and escalate to confrontation in the next four years if they did not resolve their differences.
"Cross-strait relations are entering a vicious cycle, with the DPP and the Communist Party challenging each other amid strong mutual distrust," Wang said.
Such an impasse would result in "direct confrontation if no goodwill is shown by the two sides during Tsai's next four-year term beginning in May".
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