TAIPEI — When Chinese authorities arrested a Taiwanese national in China in August for alleged violations of security laws, officials in Taipei sent worrying messages to Beijing for details.
According to a Taipei resident familiar with the Taiwan government’s China policy, the letters went unanswered, as did many of the texts and faxes that Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has sent to Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office over the past six years Has. “They ignored us,” the person said.
China ended formal high-level communications with Taiwan’s government in 2016 after island voters elected Tsai Ing-wen, which Beijing regards as a separatist, as president. With Chinese jet fighters conducting maneuvers in Taiwan on an almost daily basis since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August, there are growing concerns among some security experts that the official silence poses risks given the frequent and close contact between the two militaries .
“The lack of communications aimed at managing the relationship is concerning,” said Bonnie Glaser, a Washington-based security analyst with the United States’ German Marshall Fund. “There is a risk that the intentions of the other person will be misunderstood and that a miscalculation will result.”
There is a channel of communication — a remnant of a warmer era in cross-strait relations under former Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 and signed economic and trade deals.
But the ministerial-level hotline has been frozen in recent years while Beijing has bolstered its military capabilities and increased threats to seize control of Taiwan, by force if necessary. To date, the canal remains a neglected channel through which officials could ease tensions in emergencies or arrange talks between the Chinese Communist Party and the Tsai government.
“Since she took office, the doorbell has never rang,” said Alexander Huang, who was deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council from 2003 to 2004 and is still on its advisory board.
“The line of communication is paramount when tensions build,” added Huang, who is the top US representative of the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s main opposition party.
Tsai, elected on a platform defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, has offered talks with Beijing on the basis of equality with mutual respect. China has rejected them because Tsai refuses to recognize the “1992 consensus,” which sees Taiwan and China as part of one China but allows each side to interpret what that means.
The lack of dialogue has become more of a concern as cross-strait tensions have intensified, said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“We have to prepare the departures well in advance because if we get into a crisis and there are no departures then there could be a very dangerous situation – a situation that is even more dangerous than it is now,” Stokes said. citing collisions and the shooting down of a plane as potential hot spots.
Taiwan and China do not have embassies in each other’s capitals. Neither recognizes the other’s government, a legacy from when officials fled the defeated ROC to the island after Mao Zedong’s communists won the Chinese Civil War and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Taiwan rejects China’s claims of sovereignty and vows to defend its freedom and democracy.
After Tsai took office, Beijing “created political conditions that hamper official engagements,” but Taiwan has continued to send messages through existing channels, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement to Reuters.
China’s Bureau of Taiwan Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
“pretending to sleep”
Mutual distrust extends further down the chain. While some Taiwanese officials working on China policy have cellphone numbers of their Chinese counterparts, they have stopped making calls since 2016, according to the person familiar with Taiwan’s China policy, who described the numbers as “cold hotlines.”
“They won’t answer anyway. What’s the point?” the person said, adding that the calls would connect but Chinese officials wouldn’t answer. “You can’t wake someone who’s pretending to be asleep.”
However, at the operational level, the two sides keep in touch on routine matters such as transportation, customs and personal assistance requests. Based on a long-standing practice, faxes continue to be exchanged between two semi-official organizations dealing with routine matters: Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.
The council told Reuters that while Chinese officials are not responding directly, they have handled Taiwanese inquiries when necessary or responded through public statements.
There are also third-party channels that involve business people, academics, and journalists. A chat group on the Chinese app WeChat includes more than 100 scholars – one-third Taiwanese and two-thirds Chinese. While their interaction has continued during the Pelosi tensions, “it doesn’t matter” and no one is authorized to speak officially, a person familiar with the group said.
China is Taiwan’s most important trading partner, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese work in China. Some entrepreneurs are in regular contact with officials on both sides, reflecting close cross-strait business ties.
But at higher levels, both sides are reduced to communicating via press conferences that can culminate in the exchange of barbs. China this year called Tsai’s government “evil,” while Taiwan called China “incredibly absurd.”
The last publicly known face-to-face communication between senior figures from both sides was in August, when Andrew Hsia, vice chairman of the Kuomintang, traveled to China and met a deputy head of its office of Taiwan affairs.
Taiwan’s government condemned the trip, but the Kuomintang says such outreach is needed now more than ever.
“Sometimes it’s an inconvenient necessity,” Huang said, adding that opening up communication channels between Taipei and Beijing could improve understanding of each other’s intentions and help manage and defuse potential crises.
Some security analysts warn that communication has its limits.
“The bottom line is: if China wants to fight a war, it escalates. If China doesn’t want to fight a war, it won’t escalate,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “You will not get a war by mistake.”
Even if the two sides had spoken, “China’s diplomatic channels are not being used to negotiate compromises,” said Drew Thompson, a former US defense official who is now at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“Under Xi Jinping, they are used to issue instructions and tell other countries what to do if they want to maintain good relations with China. It’s Xi’s way or the highway.” – Reuters