President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has said on several occasions that he would like to see China and Taiwan establish representative offices in each others’ territories as soon as possible. However, the idea of setting up such offices to handle emergency situations was first broached by the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) when it was established, but China rebuffed the proposal on the grounds that it was too early to take such action.
Several days ago, the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of China’s State Council adopted a different line, saying that the foundation and its counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), are civic groups authorized by the governments of China and Taiwan, and that there is a pressing need for them to set up offices in each other’s territories. It is worth considering why China has reversed its position on this issue.
Ma has said that these offices would be expected to carry out comprehensive functions, although it is not clear what he means by this. The first issue to consider in establishing those offices would be guaranteeing the safety of staff stationed in the SEF’s office in China, as well as the inviolability of its archives and premises.
These are fundamental considerations, as without such guarantees it would be impossible for staff to carry out their duties. Judging by the TAO’s recent statement, it is clear that it envisages these representative offices as being branches of two purely civic organizations. Would it really be wise to rush into setting up an office in China under such an organizational model?
Another issue to consider is how the proposed representative offices would conduct their official business.
China is always putting pressure on Taiwan in the international arena. For example, the staff of Taiwan’s representative offices abroad are subject to all kinds of restrictions, including how they conduct business with official government institutions, what channels they go through and who they are permitted to speak with.
Taiwanese officials stationed overseas are not allowed office access to government institutions in their host country. If they wish to hold a meeting, they have to do it in a coffee shop. If they have any official business to conduct, they must first notify designated intermediaries for scrutiny.
Certain intelligence services even designate captains or majors as contacts for Taiwanese major generals. Attention must be paid to this issue before the foundation and ARATS think about establishing representative offices.
When Taiwanese visit China as guests, they have been intentionally kept in the dark as to their visiting program until the very last moment. When Chinese VIPs come to Taiwan, senior Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) figures, local leaders and community dignitaries line up to meet or dine with them. How will this be addressed in the future?
The US is a bastion of freedom and democracy, that also plays host to the UN and several UN agencies. Yet the US imposes travel restrictions on the diplomats of certain countries. For example, they may not be allowed to travel further than 40km outside of New York or Washington without a special permit. These kinds of restrictions are usually applied when there is a risk of espionage or terrorism, or when the officials are from countries deemed hostile to the US.
Japan and Russia have diplomatic relations, but never signed a peace treaty after World War II and have similar measures in place. Several Japanese police cars are parked outside the Russian embassy in Tokyo at any given time. Whenever a Russian vehicle carrying important passengers leaves the embassy, Japanese police will tail it for its entire journey.
In 1999, the US Congress published the Cox Report, officially titled the Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/ Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, concerning China’s espionage activities in the US during the 1980s and 1990s. According to the report, China has modeled its operations on those of the former Soviet Union, employing an extensive and pervasive intelligence-gathering network.
China now feels that the time is right for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to exchange representative offices. The battle lines are being drawn, but is Taiwan going to tolerate its officials being subjected to restrictions in China, while Chinese officials in Taiwan are allowed to go wherever they want?
Recently, a Taiwanese businessman in China complained that Ma “looks in the mirror for his appointees.” It should be added that Ma also prefers to conduct business behind closed doors. When Ma worked for the Mainland Affairs Council, he tended to be overcautious and lacked courage and insight.
Now, one can only hope that he will again take a cautious approach and set up a representative office in China that will uphold Taiwan’s dignity and safeguard its interests.
Chen Rong-jye is a legal expert and a former Straits Exchange Foundation secretary-general
Translated by Paul Cooper