Asia-Pacific, Headlines

HONG KONG: Consulates Face Deadline Dilemma Over Taiwan Links

Yojana Sharma

HONG KONG, Oct 31 1996 (IPS) - A number of developing countries with diplomatic links to Taipei have shut down their consulates here in response to an ultimatum from Beijing that they cannot maintain full diplomatic missions in Hong Kong after it becomes part of China in mid-1997.

Beijing, hoping to use the issue as leverage to push small countries into severing ties with Taiwan under its “One China” policy, had as early as late last year said the future status of each consulate in Hong Kong had to be settled by bilateral talks.

This referred not just to countries without diplomatic links to Beijing but others as well, whose commissions in Hong Kong must be changed to consulates.

Thirty-one countries have diplomatic ties with Taipei, some 15 of which also have representations in Hong Kong. To date, at least five of those have decided to close down their consulates here rather than compromise their links with Taiwan.

The five include the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, which closed its mission earlier this month, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Dominica.

But for some countries, Beijing’s ultimatum has clearly prompted a dilemma and consular staff are reluctant to comment on what would be the future of their mission after next year’s the Jun.30 midnight hand-over of the British colony.

The issue is being played against a much wider canvass of Taiwan’s attempts to gain international support for a seat in the United Nations and Beijing’s attempts to thwart Taipei.

The Central American states, seen as Taiwan’s staunchest allies, met with in Taipei at foreign minister’ level in July to consider forming a regional organisation to promote relations between Central America and Asia.

The issue of U.N. membership for Taiwan on the General Assembly agenda this autumn, was prominent in those talks.

Honduran President Carlos Reina also visited Taipei in July, becoming the first foreign head of state to address the Taiwanese National Assembly. He reaffirmed formal relations with Taipei.

Others are scaling back their diplomatic activities here in preparation for remaining in Hong Kong with semi-official status.

Those still operating consulates in Hong Kong at present include Tonga, Panama, Paraguay, Senegal, Liberia, Belize and Grenada. Of these, Belize and Panama attended the July meeting in Taipei. Panama sent its vice-foreign minister and Belize was represented by its agriculture minister.

A new joint communique was signed by Senegal and Taiwan in January reaffirming on-again-off-again diplomatic ties. Taiwan established relations with Dakar after that country’s independence in 1960, but suspended links in November 1964 when Dakar recognised China.

Taipei and Dakar restored official ties in July 1969 only to break them off again in December 1971, in favour of Beijing-Dakar ties. Dakar is setting up an embassy in Taipei at present.

Senegalese Foreign Minister Moustapha Niasse told the U.N. General Assembly earlier this month that Taiwan’s membership “would be a significant contribution to the stabilisation of international relations in that part of Asia and for economic, technical and cultural cooperation without precedent among the countries of South-east Asia and in Africa.”

South Africa, Paraguay, Panama and Senegal have full consulates here, but Panama has hinted it may “downgrade” to a trade mission. Taiwan has considerable investments in an export processing zone in Panama, and both sides have reaffirmed their close relations.

However, Panama is also in the process of strengthening its relations with Beijing. Earlier this year, China set up a trade office in Panama.

The consulates of Belize and the Dominican Republic said all enquiries had to be referred to their capitals, while the Central African Republic’s consulate said the mission handled only visa enquiries and that no other diplomatic activity took place.

However South Africa, the largest of the 30 countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan, said Pretoria had not yet entered into formal negotiations with Beijing on the future of its diplomatic representation in Hong Kong.

Martin Malan, acting South African Consulate General in Hong Kong told IPS an assessment of South Africa’s relations with China and Taiwan is under way. “When that is done, President Nelson Mandela will make an announcement. Only then will formal negotiations on the future of our mission in Hong Kong begin.”

In 1995, South African trade with China jumped to 1.3 billion dollars compared to 14 million dollars when apartheid was collapsing in 1991. That compares to South Africa’s 960 million dollars in trade with Taiwan.

Mandela has so far tried to balance relations with both Beijing and Taipei. Both China and Taiwan supported the African National Congress (ANC) during the Apartheid era.

But Japanese analysts in Taipei say South Africa has little choice but to downgrade its relations with Taipei in favour of Beijing. An announcement is expected from Pretoria by the end of the year — precisely because of the June 1997 deadline — to secure the status of the mission in Hong Kong.

“Otherwise Mandela would have been happy to leave the matter as it is, making friendly noises to both China and Taipei without changing the level of links,” another diplomat here said.

Under Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution, the Basic Law, nations with representatives in Hong Kong can remain but if there are no diplomatic relations with China the status of the offices will remain unofficial.

“We are doubtful that we can maintain our (consular) status because to maintain a consulate here, there must be an embassy in the capital (ie Beijing),” Malan said.

“The question will really be what status will be attached to these semi-official missions and what privileges will be allowed to continue. We already have a semi-official office in China, and Beijing has one in Pretoria.”

Diplomats here say a number of countries were offered financial inducements by Taiwan while others considered their interests too minor to maintain a mission. Many of the smaller consulates merely had honorary consuls in Hong Kong.

But China has been using similar tactics, as part of Beijing’s battle to prevent Taiwan making diplomatic inroads in developing countries. Last May, President Jiang Zemin toured a number of African states, announcing extensive aid and investment deals.

As for Taiwanese representative bodies in Hong Kong, Beijing is said to be taking a hard line, refusing to allow any representatives who are also Taiwan government officials. “Only Taiwanese non-government organisations will be allowed in the territory,” a Chinese official said.

Taipei has two official bodies in Hong Kong — the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Chung Kwa Travel Service and the Information Ministry’s Kwang Ha Information and Culture Centre.

China maintains neither of these bodies are non-governmental or semi-official and are “actively engaged in political affairs” here. Beijing says they must cease functioning by the hand-over date. Whatever their role after 1997, diplomats here say Beijing will closely vet any Taiwanese representatives.

Taiwan’s stated plan to establish a permanent office in Hong Kong of the Mainland Affairs Council which handles cross-straits relations has apparently been abandoned because of hostility from China.

Even developed countries are coming under pressure from Beijing. Canada has signed an agreement, as has Australia while the United States and Japan are still negotiating. In the case of Japan, talks are on hold because of the ongoing territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

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