The first official Chinese visit to Taiwan in three years underscores strained relations

The first group of Chinese officials to visit Taiwan in three years hid from the public over the weekend, highlighting how pandemic border closures and rising military tensions have exacerbated the breakdown in communications with Beijing.

After being greeted by protesters as they arrived in Taipei on Saturday, the six-strong delegation from the Shanghai municipal government failed to show up for a scheduled visit to the Taiwanese capital’s Lantern Festival, a celebration of the Lunar New Year, that same evening.

According to a schedule shared with Taipei city lawmakers, Li Xiaodong, deputy chief of the Shanghai Bureau of Taiwan Affairs, and five other officials were scheduled to visit cultural venues in Taiwan’s capital.

They are expected to hold talks with Mayor Chiang Wan-an of the opposition Kuomintang party. However, the Taipei city government declined to provide any information about the trip.

Sensitivity surrounding the visit shows how difficult things have become even for the Kuomintang — a party assuming a Chinese identity and with a chance of winning the next presidential election in 2024 — following China’s escalating military threats against Taiwan with Beijing to work together.

After President Tsai-Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016, China restricted most official exchanges with Taiwan and even barred its citizens from visiting it as tourists.

However, local Chinese officials kept in touch with KMT-led Taiwan city and county governments until early 2020, when Tsai’s government closed the country’s borders to non-residents to halt the spread of Covid-19.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and is threatening an invasion if the island refuses to submit to its control indefinitely.

Taiwan’s central government approved the Shanghai delegation’s visit on condition that the group refrain from making 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 to manage ongoing pandemic risks.

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

The Shanghai officials began their visit following a trip to China by Andrew Hsia, a vice chairman of the Kuomintang Party and a former diplomat, who met with Beijing’s Taiwan policy leaders 10 days ago.

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

Since then, the People’s Liberation Army has intimidated the country with increasingly frequent and far-reaching military maneuvers. Taiwan’s military 24 Chinese military planes spotted Active around the island in the 24 hours to Saturday morning, the highest level of this activity since February 1st.

Taiwan’s government only 18,849 Chinese visits were counted in the first 11 months of last year — fewer than 2.7 million in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, and 4.1 million in 2015, the peak of Chinese tourism to the country under Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou , which promoted closer ties with China China.

Analysts said the collapse of almost all contacts increased the risk of conflict.

“All kinds of exchanges have become incredibly tense since 2016, and Covid has nailed the cross-strait understanding in the coffin. There is so much confusion, misunderstanding and misunderstanding,” said Ian Rowen, associate professor at National Taiwan Normal University.

“But being afraid of any kind of contact and exchange will absolutely increase misunderstandings. That’s frightening when you think about it.” The first official Chinese visit to Taiwan in three years underscores strained relations

Adam Bradshaw

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