IT WAS only six months ago that China and Taiwan achieved a symbolic breakthrough in their decades-long standoff: the two countries’ presidents met for the first time since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, both looking chuffed that they had finally broken the ice. Now it is back to normal. On June 25th China shut down a channel for communication between the two sides because of the refusal of Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, to accept that there is but “one China”, and that Taiwan is a part of it. A new chill is descending over the Taiwan Strait.
When the news broke, Ms Tsai (pictured) was embarking on her first foreign tour since she took office in May—to Panama and Paraguay, among the very few countries that recognise Taiwan’s government, bracketed by transit stops in America. She would not have been surprised. During his meeting with her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, China’s president Xi Jinping had said his government was willing to have contact with any political party in Taiwan, as long as it accepted a “consensus” that was reached between the two sides in 1992 on the idea of one China. Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), unlike Mr Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), finds that notion hard to swallow.
Taiwanese officials say they will keep trying to talk to their mainland counterparts; after all, it is only a channel that opened up in 2014 between China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council that has been shut down. Before then, the two sides had communicated through semi-official bodies; indeed, it was these that agreed in 1992 that there was only one China, and that each side would interpret this as it wished.But talks about things like cross-strait trade will now be tricky. China has always insisted that the 1992 agreement should be the basis for such discussions. During the previous DPP presidency, from 2000 to 2008, China barely spoke to Taiwan. It was only after Mr Ma took over as president in 2008 that relations warmed again. Conveniently for Ms Tsai, some in her party are not eager to improve trade and investment ties with China, particularly if it involves opening Taiwan’s markets to competitors from the mainland.
China has not threatened to roll back any of the trade agreements it reached with Mr Ma’s government. But tour operators say there has been a sharp drop in the number of Chinese visitors since Ms Tsai was elected in January. It appears that China’s travel agencies, under official pressure, are dissuading people from going to the island. That is a blow: Taiwan’s service and retail industries benefit hugely from such tourism.
A greater threat to Taiwan may simply be that an absence of official contacts between the two sides will lead to dangerous misunderstandings in a region bristling with weaponry. A potential flashpoint has become a little more worrying.