What Hong Kong's handover means for Taiwan

Gerald Segal, for Asia Times, 9th May 1997

Taiwanese like to tell British visitors that Hong Kong should be handed to them on July 1, 1997 because the government in Taipei holds the original lease documents. 

But Taiwanese officials are also learning to be arch-realists and they understand that in truth they are losing the battle for formal diplomatic status. The handover of Hong Kong to China is focusing the mind and at least some Taiwanese are beginning to think about a more innovative international strategy. In truth, they need be even more innovative. 

The imminent handover of Hong Kong has already resulted in an agreement that there be no flags on the tails of aircraft flying to and from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Progress has been made in direct shipping links between the mainland and Taiwan, but shipping links between Hong Kong and Taiwan are proving more difficult to negotiate, in part because China believes it has enormous leverage over a rebel island that depends on trade to survive. Thus, China has refused Taiwan's suggestion that ships plying the Hong Kong-Taiwan route fly no flag when they enter port. 

If no agreement is reached, the interests of Taiwan and Hong Kong will be damaged, but China itself may feel that the real winners will be its own shipping lines which handle the direct trade. 

Taiwanese officials know what British negotiators over Hong Kong knew only too well, that when China holds all the cards, it deals a tough hand. Hence the intensifying efforts in Taipei to find new ways to deal with Hong Kong and China. 

The creation of a Hong Kong Affairs Department under the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council is intended to manage an office in Hong Kong that may well emerge as a de facto Taiwanese embassy to China. To some extent like the branch of China's Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong that was Beijing's de facto embassy in the colony, the new Taiwanese office is intended to find a flexible form of dialogue. 

Taiwanese officials dealing with security and intelligence will not be mollified by the creation of such a link, because for them the handover of Hong Kong is a far-reaching challenge to Taiwan's de facto independence. 

China and Taiwan have always found it far easier to penetrate each other's security systems than have Western powers. Astute Western observers of China have long valued Taiwanese access to China's secrets, even if they have had to wade through much disinformation before finding real gems of data. For many years, Hong Kong was a playground of both Chinese and Taiwanese intelligence - a connection that often proved useful in managing periodic crises. 

But the handover of Hong Kong has made the Taiwanese wince in anticipation of much pain to come. They see thousands of Chinese agents being placed in key institutions, companies and even arms of government in Hong Kong in the run-up to July 1. Taiwanese officials are watching closely for signs of how China will treat Taiwan after the handover, when Taiwan will become the prime focus of Beijing's intelligence operations. If Taipei has a counter-strategy, it is to use Hong Kong as a location to help subvert Chinese officials and channel system-sapping ideas of freedom through the more porous Hong Kong-China frontier. Taiwan's concern is that such a strategy will take a long time, and if China is serious about a big push to re-take Taiwan before the year 2010, they may not have enough time. 

Taiwanese officials, especially the tough nuts in the intelligence community, are reasonably confident that the transition to Chinese rule in Hong Kong will go smoothly. They, like China's friends in Hong Kong, care little for the democratic niceties that are currently being debated in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese see a China that will be able to gain control and sustain a modicum of prosperity, thereby making it easier to sell the idea of reunification of Taiwan to the outside world. They fear that Taiwan will be increasingly told by the outside world not to rock the boat and that the fate of Hong Kong is not so bad. 

For less conservative forces in Taiwan, this logic is a powerful reason to speed up domestic economic and political reform. But in so doing, Taiwanese are building up momentum for a change to their international position. The problem is that sensible and appealing alternatives to the current state of affairs are hard to find. 

When one poses the implications of such trends to Taiwanese Foreign Minister John Chang, he clearly recognizes the scale of the challenge. Chang now places much less stress on the 29 insignificant states that retain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Instead, he discusses the need to modernize relations with the 60 or so countries that have de facto diplomatic ties with Taiwan. These are the rich and powerful who are most sympathetic to Taiwan but who find it safer to hide their prejudices in diplomatic subterfuge. 

It is a sign of Taiwan's growing maturity that its senior officials can be so easily pragmatic. Their hope must be that the outside world will welcome even more innovative forms of diplomacy. 

Such innovation would certainly be an improvement on Taiwan's abortive efforts to find a form of representation in the United Nations. Chang at least implicitly recognizes the failure of the earlier campaign for a seat in the UN, but his current effort to obtain observer status at the World Health Organization is only marginally less daft. Never mind the moral high ground, the reality is that China will say no and can block any effort in a multilateral institution. Taiwan's only hope lies in pragmatic relations with individual countries. 

Of course, the pragmatism can go too far. Consider the madness of an increasingly liberal Taiwan cosying up to an increasingly chaotic and determinedly dastardly North Korea. With new friends like that, Taiwan will risk alienating its real friends in the democratic world. But such are the lengths to which Taiwan is driven in order to change its international status. 

Such diplomatic dances with the devil are especially self-defeating when it is plain, at least in the short-term, that the increasingly vocal Taiwan democrats are not fooled by high-profile campaigns in the WHO or glitzy welcomes for African dictators. 

The increasingly free Taiwanese press sees such sleazy diplomacy as demeaning and a waste of money when there are more urgent causes at home. One even hears Taiwanese officials unofficially muttering about the need to avoid grandstanding and get on with real domestic reform needed to reduce corruption and decay of social order. 

Taiwanese officials are clearly caught in a very difficult position. They know that they must get on with reform of the economy and political system. Current decisions on constitutional reform will enhance the power of the elected president - a vessel of power that the opposition hopes will soon be filled by one of their own. 

Mainstream parties know that as Taiwan grows richer and freer, there will have to be new forms of governance and representation abroad. Another version of the March 1996 crisis - when China test-fired missiles off Taiwan's coast as a warning to Taiwanese voters not to encourage their candidates to strive for independence - is as certain as anything can be in the world of regional security. 

But Taiwanese defense officials are far from sanguine that things will turn out as well as they did in 1996, when nothing serious actually happened. 

They fret about the United States' commitment and many worry that, in an atmosphere of worse Sino-US relations, the Americans might even get over-committed. Senior Taiwanese officials say in private that they favor a warming in Sino-US relations, but they should do so much more in public. 

They might take note of the fact that Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten and democratic politician Martin Lee have been clever in going to Washington to argue the case for renewal of China's Most Favored Nation trading status. 

A truly bold Taiwanese government could go even further. There would be little harm in saying to the world what they say in private - that Beijing is the only government of China. That is not the same as saying that Taiwan is part of China - that is to be left to the people of Taiwan to decide. 

But until the people of Taiwan decide who they are, they will always fear the fate of Hong Kong. If the people of Taiwan decide that they want "one China, one Taiwan", then the outside world can get on with offering these brave people the kind of support that is now merely being mouthed unconvincingly in regard to the defense of Hong Kong's rights and freedoms. 

If Hong Kong were where Taiwan is, and had the population and the armed forces of Taiwan, the United Kingdom would have given Hong Kong freedom instead of handing it over to China.