Last week’s controversy over Kenya’s extradition of 45 Taiwanese nationals to China, likely at Beijing’s request, has pointed to souring relations across the Taiwan Strait just a month before the inauguration of a new president in Taipei. Although some have interpreted the incident as a warning directed at the incoming Tsai Ing-wen, whose party opposes unification with China, Beijing’s actions likely resulted from other, though no less troubling, dynamics.
The outrage in Taiwan, which sparked a rare moment of unity in the island nation’s deeply divided political scene, stemmed from Nairobi’s decision to deport the suspects to China rather than Taiwan, even after the Kenyan High Court had cleared them of involvement in telecommunications fraud and given them three weeks to leave the country. Protests by Taiwanese officials, who quickly described the extradition as an act of “illegal abduction,” were to no avail.
Kenya has no diplomatic ties with Taiwan and argues it simply followed protocol. Kenya and China also commenced negotiations on an extradition treaty in August 2015. Complicating matters was the fact that, later last week, Malaysia deported 20 Taiwanese fraud suspects to Taiwan, despite a request by Beijing that they also be extradited to China. Meanwhile, Nairobi denies reports that armed police used tear gas on the Taiwanese suspects after they resisted the extradition.
There is precedent for the extradition of telecommunication fraud suspects to a third country that has been targeted, including to the United States on several occasions. However, Beijing politicized the case through its initial reaction of commending Nairobi for adhering to the “one China” principle. Thus, rather than portray it as primarily a law-enforcement issue, Beijing created the impression that its claim of Taiwan belonging to China was at the heart of the decision.
Moreover, it took China days to begin arguing that the transfer of the suspects to China was necessary because of Taiwan’s supposed lenient treatment of individuals involved in telecommunication fraud, many of whom, it says, are released before receiving proper punishment. There is no doubt that Taiwan is at the nexus of fraud syndicates that have targeted China over the years, and Taipei will have to do a lot more to assuage fears in China that the problem is being treated accordingly.
However, as they signed a joint crime-fighting agreement in 2009, China could easily have cooperated with Taiwanese law enforcement in this case once the suspects were returned to their home country and thereby avoided a political incident that could only result in alienating the Taiwanese. That it pressured Nairobi to have them deported to China, where, given the lack of an independent judicial system, they have no assurance of receiving a fair trial, suggests Beijing may be selective in deciding whether and when to work with Taiwan, and leaves no doubt as to where, in its opinion, the center of gravity lies. In other words, since Beijing regards Taiwan as a province, the final decision should always be made at the center—in Beijing. And it will not hesitate to act unilaterally if necessary.
China’s growing influence abroad, added to the extraterritorial nature of its new National Security Law—which claims to apply to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan—has exacerbated Taiwanese fears. The recent deportations have fueled apprehensions that Taiwanese nationals traveling abroad now face a greater risk of being seized for various crimes as defined by the Chinese government and irrespective of whether they have been formally charged by the country in which they find themselves. In their view, countries that receive large amounts of financial assistance from China (Nairobi recently announced it would receive a new $600 million USD loan from China to help address a budget deficit) may be willing to cooperate with Beijing in the transfer of Taiwanese accused of “separatism” or “endangering national security.”
For this, too, there are precedents, such as the 2007 deportation of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen and Uighur Muslim, from Uzbekistan to China on terrorism charges. Beijing has refused to recognize Celil’s Canadian citizenship and barred Canadian officials from visiting him. Celil initially received a life sentence, which was reduced earlier this year. As recent events have shown, the intensifying crackdown on dissent across China and Hong Kong can no longer be dissociated from Beijing’s rising extraterritoriality. Also, China’s frustration with its inability to encourage “peaceful unification”—by attempting to win Taiwanese hearts and minds over the past eight years—could compel it to adopt similar measures against them. The implications for Taiwan are therefore considerable.
It is highly unlikely that the decision to seize the suspects was intended as a warning to President Tsai, who will assume office on May 20th. Rather, it reflects trends in China’s treatment of what it regards as its “peripheries,” and would have occurred regardless of who sits in the Presidential Office in Taipei. Beijing’s unilateral tendencies, after all, did not begin with the election of a new Taiwanese leader.
Nevertheless, even though the act was not directly aimed at her, the strong domestic and international reaction to it will make it difficult for Tsai—who campaigned on a platform of continuity and engagement with China—to say anything positive about Taiwan’s neighbor in her inauguration speech, the wording of which Beijing will closely scrutinize for any indications of Taipei’s future policy. Instead, Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics risk further consolidating pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan, where support for unification with China is at its nadir.
China’s refusal to respond to requests by Taipei—the famous hotline launched last year went unanswered in Beijing—and the communication breakdown between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office in the early days of the crisis also suggest that the mechanisms and agreements that were implemented during the eight years of rapprochement under President Ma Ying-jeou were never completely institutionalized; they are, therefore, not entirely reliable and remain vulnerable to selective use by Beijing.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and editor-in-chief of Thinking Taiwan. The views expressed here are his alone. Follow @JMichaelCole1