China has confirmed it arrested two Taiwanese citizens last week on charges of espionage. China's Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed a Taiwan media report that two Taipei businessmen have been arrested for spying. The Office deals with Taiwanese affairs in the absence of official ties between the countries. Last week Taiwan's United Daily News said the two had been arrested in southern China for providing military secrets to Taiwan. It is the latest in a long round of tit-for-tat spying allegations in both countries.
In April China executed Tong Daning, a director of the National Social Security Fund, on charges of spying for Taiwan. Employees of Chinese universities, radio and television stations have been forced to watch a video titled "Tong Daning's Spying Case" in the weeks following the execution. The video was meant to "strengthen employees' concept of protecting secrets," according to a Chinese web site.
In 2004 Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that the State Security Department had smashed a Taiwanese spy ring arresting 24 Taiwanese and 19 mainlanders. The report did not identify those detained or say what sort of spying they conducted except to say the group had "conducted activities in violation of the law” and had confessed. According to the HK newspaper, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian blew their cover when he listed the locations of almost 500 missiles he said the mainland had pointed at Taiwan.
The welfare of Taiwanese spies in China was also seriously compromised by the 2002 revelations of a secret US$100m slush fund to pay for covert diplomatic operations. The story was leaked by Colonel Liu Kuan-chun, a former chief cashier at Taiwan's National Security Bureau who fled Taiwan in September 2000 amid allegations he embezzled US$5.5m from the fund. It is a major issue for the island because Taiwan has so few official diplomatic ties with other countries and it relies on personal contacts with its allies to conduct foreign relations.
Currently only 24 nations of the world recognise Taiwan as the sole Republic of China. These are mostly poor nations in Africa, Central America and some Pacific islands whose support has been bought through generous loans and grants. China continues to launch a diplomatic offensive to isolate the island nation. Taiwan is a relic of the Chinese civil war. After the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan where it was still universally recognised as the official Chinese government.
The Republic of China was a founder member of the UN and held China’s seat at the UN and the security council until 1971. In that year the UN conceded that the Kuomintang's claim to all of China was unrealistic and they adopted General Assembly Resolution 2758 which replaced the Republic of China with the mainland People’s Republic of China as the country’s sole representative. Taiwan has called for an amendment of this resolution to allow it be represented as a state in the UN. However China has blocked all attempts to change its status. It also refuses to have diplomatic relations with any nation that recognises the Republic of China, and requires all nations that it has diplomatic relations with to recognise its claims to Taiwan.
The US officially switched allegiances under the Carter administration in 1979. But the seeds for the switch were sown by Henry Kissinger seven years earlier when he issued the Shanghai Communique. This stated that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed there was only one China and that the United States recognised this position. It deliberately avoided stating which China was the one China. When Carter normalised the Chinese relationship, he did so without consulting Congress who had just voted that no relations were to be established with China at the expense of Taiwan. Congress retaliated by passing the Taiwan Relations Act which obliges the US to supply Taiwan with defensive weapons to maintain a balance of power with China.
The Act also authorised the created the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The AIT is officially the vehicle of “commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan”. But in reality it is the de facto US embassy in Taipei. Taiwan set up a counterpart called the Taipei Economic & Cultural Representative Office in the US (TECRO) which is its Washington embassy. The US official position remains the support of a peaceful transition to a One China.
America is not alone in having a policy of deliberate ambiguity towards Taiwan. The country competes in the Olympics and FIFA World cup events under the name of Chinese Taipei. The UN refers to the island as “Taiwan, Province of China”. But for the World Trade Organisation it goes under the unwieldy moniker of the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu”. The status quo is accepted because it does not define the legal status or future status of Taiwan, leaving each vested interest to interpret the situation in whatever way it prefers.
But there is now growing support in Taiwan change the status quo. Many centrist and left wing parties such as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) now favour complete independence while the old guard dominated by the Kuomintang remain pro-unification. The irony is that although Beijing sees the republic of China as an illegitimate entity, it has stated that any effort by Taiwan to formally abolish the republic or renounce its claim over the China would be viewed unfavourably as an act of independence. The continual arresting of “spies” may just be China’s way of showing its displeasure.