Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen have vowed to cooperate — with or without each other’s help — in a wide range of fields. Yet many on the island worry that China has embarked on a covert campaign, stealthily inserting diplomatic diplomats into senior diplomatic posts in Europe and the U.S. and attempting to sabotage Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships in favor of Beijing’s favored ally, the Philippines.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that it had discovered a small but unusual number of low-level Taiwanese diplomatic staffers, many in France, moving quietly into top European diplomatic positions.
The moves violate the US law that bans most government employees of the Chinese government from working for foreign governments, unless they receive government permission and clearance. The activities, made possible because the Taipei administration conducted the transfers without formal approval of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, require close scrutiny by the U.S. government, which generally suspects them of espionage.
Taiwan is the only place China does not have a diplomatic embassy or consular mission. China does have interests sections and diplomatic staff in other countries, but they operate quietly and without mention of a formal diplomatic mission.
China’s government spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Wednesday that Beijing had nothing to do with the Taiwan diplomat movements and would not interfere in European affairs. It was “highly sensitive and intolerable,” he said, “to politicize this.”
Taiwan government officials said Wednesday they believe the Hong Kong government and Taiwan human rights activists played a role in getting Taiwanese diplomatic personnel into European positions. The Dutch government apologized to Taipei after a Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff member flew a Taiwanese diplomat to a diplomatic post in the Netherlands in 2015 without asking Taipei for permission.
Switzerland has had a diplomatic envoy in Taiwan for more than four decades. But this week it suspended contacts with Taipei over Taiwan’s move to separate its relations with Japan and adopt the Japanese name for the nation — although the capital of this island country remains Taipei.
Taiwan officials said that China is trying to erase Taiwanese influence in key European countries. Without a diplomatic presence, Taiwan will struggle to influence foreign governments or lobby the United Nations on behalf of self-rule.
Relations between China and Taiwan have thawed since Mr. Xi took power in 2012, but now tensions are growing fast again. The island has some democratic features and an independent judiciary. But it also enjoys separate political and judicial systems that are opposed by China, which considers Taiwan as part of the country.
Taiwan has looked for support abroad to show it is separate from mainland China.
Taiwan has sent three of its best-known dissidents abroad, among them outspoken TV personality Wang Dan.
Mr. Wang was ambassador to Spain from 2004 to 2006. He later played a prominent role in the development of Taiwan’s democratic movement.
Last year he visited France, a longtime “friend” of Taiwan, joining retired President Ma Ying-jeou on a trip to Peru.
“Taiwanese people don’t want to be surrounded by China because they don’t understand the mainland,” Mr. Wang said.
Taiwan has an almost negligible population in the former Spanish colony.
Many observers say that Mr. Xi is taking a harder line toward Taiwan, aimed at increasing his influence over the island and its leaders. Mr. Xi is said to resent what he perceives as high praise and concern for Taiwan in western media coverage of his leadership.
Among diplomats at the top levels, the gulf between Taipei and Beijing is immense.
“Despite the vast difference in historical experience and outcomes, this is a country that reflects the mentality of a paranoid parent,” Taiwan Ambassador to France Chen Chih-sheng told Voice of America. “Doing anything outside of our political objective means that we would be denounced as traitors, and we would be blamed by Beijing.”