The scuffle between Chinese embassy staffers in Fiji and a Taiwanese diplomat at a Republic of China (ROC) Double Ten National Day celebration has turned into a public relations opportunity for the government, Beijing and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Although the incident occurred on Oct. 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) downplayed it, only for the story to be picked up by the foreign media, forcing the ministry to respond. The public and opposition parties asked why the government had failed to remonstrate more strongly in the first instance.
It is still unclear whether the ministry missed a trick with its initial downplaying of the incident, but since its hand was forced, the government has used it to its advantage.
Reports by Western media about the incident have been fair and balanced, with many viewing it within the context of China’s increasingly aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. While this conclusion is being reached in the international media, it is hardly a conceptual leap. Still, the government capitalized on it, with MOFA spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安) describing China’s approach as “gangster diplomacy” and Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) saying Chinese officials overseas “are acting like hooligans.”
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) attempted to switch the narrative by saying at a news conference in Beijing that it was Taiwanese officials who attacked the Chinese embassy staff. He said Taiwan’s version of events was tantamount to a “thief crying ‘stop thief.’”
Given the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) record, especially in the past year, Zhao’s metaphor is pure projection and will fall on deaf ears.
Taiwanese should not be surprised that Chinese officials acted in this way, or that the CCP remains unapologetic, although it certainly is shocking that a Taiwanese official was hospitalized because of the incident.
The government’s belatedly strong response harbors no expectation that Beijing would be repentant: It was merely an exercise in norm-establishing, in reiterating standards to which diplomatic officials ought to be held. At the same time, it was a message to the international community: “This is what we are up against.”
The world, increasingly aware of the CCP’s aggressive willingness to shatter norms of civility and responsibility, is more receptive to this message than ever before.
The KMT’s messaging was directed at the domestic audience, but also benefits the perception of its vision in the international community.
KMT caucus whip Lin Wei-chou (林為洲) said that cross-strait peace relies on the efforts of both Taiwan and China, and that Taiwan should insist that “one China, with each side having their own interpretation” includes the ROC’s version.
He said that in the face of continued hostility from Beijing, the two sides should cease exchanges, and that Taiwan should look for more support from overseas. He expressed offense that Zhao had called the ROC flag a “fake” national flag.
This is a more assertive stance with Beijing than people have come to expect from the KMT for many years. The messaging is consistent with KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang’s (江啟臣) plan to return to the party’s heyday decades ago — not the more recent experimentation with closer engagement with the CCP of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) presidency.
Not only is this, for Chiang, a return to the party’s values, it is also a much-needed play for electoral relevance, as well as a pitch for international recognition as a representative of “one China” that the international community can actually work with.
Was an initial assessment of Chiang as a weak leader perhaps a little hasty? The KMT should now be getting behind him and his plan for gradually turning the party around.
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