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Beijing's new weapon in economic war: Chinese tourists
By Allison JACKSON
Beijing (AFP) May 21, 2017


Barred from WHO meet, Taiwan urges global 'pressure' on China
Geneva (AFP) May 21, 2017 - Taiwan voiced deep disappointment Sunday at its exclusion from a major World Health Organization meeting, and urged international pressure on rival China to ensure it has access in future.

The WHO's main annual meeting, the World Health Assembly (WHA), kicks off in Geneva on Monday, but for the first time in eight years, Taiwan will not be granted access.

"We feel very, very disappointed," Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told AFP in Geneva on Sunday.

Self-governing Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province awaiting reunification, has been invited to attend the WHO's main annual meeting as an observer every year since 2009, but this year it did not receive an invitation.

Relations with China have become increasingly frosty since Beijing-sceptic President Tsai Ing-wen took power almost a year ago and China has sought to block the island from a string of international events.

"Each year since 2009, a cross-strait understanding has been the foundation for a special arrangement for Chinese Taipei to participate as an observer in the World Health Assembly," WHO's head of governing bodies and external relations, Timothy Armstrong, told reporters earlier this month.

"Unfortunately this year, no such cross-strait understanding exists, so there is no basis for the invitation."

As a result, Chen will not even be able to access the UN's European headquarters in Geneva, where the WHA will take place through May 31.

Taiwanese media have also been refused access to cover the event.

- Permanent observer? -

But Chen told AFP he had travelled to the Swiss city anyway to meet health ministers and diplomats from more than 30 countries on the sidelines of the meeting.

"We want every assistance to keep up the international pressure so that this condition will not be happening again," Chen said, refusing to say which country representatives he would be meeting.

Taiwan was expelled from the WHO in 1972, a year after losing the "China" seat at the United Nations to Beijing.

With China in the ascendant, Taiwan has shed global allies in recent decades and only 21 countries now recognise the island's sovereignty.

Even its most powerful ally, the United States, has no official diplomatic relations with Taipei.

US President Donald Trump recently rebuffed the idea of another phone call with Tsai after their protocol-busting chat following his election victory, saying he would not want to damage relations with China's President Xi Jinping.

Around a dozen representatives from countries that back Taiwan are expected to push Monday for the island to receive permanent observer status at the WHO, although there is little hope the request will be granted.

"Obtaining a permanent observer (seat) is our final goal," Chen said, acknowledging though that this was not likely to happen overnight.

"We will do it step by step," he said.

Chen said there were no plans to meet with Chinese officials during his trip to Geneva, but said that "for the health of both sides we are willing to work together if we have the chance".

He warned that leaving Taiwan out in the cold could be detrimental to global health, with international cooperation and rapid exchange of information seen as vital to halting disease outbreaks.

"We feel sorry that the welfare of human health is unnecessarily polluted by China," he said.

Slapping import bans on products like mangoes, coal and salmon has long been China's way of punishing countries that refuse to toe its political line.

But Beijing has shown that it can also hurt others by cutting a lucrative Chinese export: tourists who normally flock to South Korea or Taiwan.

China's recent boycott of South Korea over a US anti-missile shield on the Korean peninsula signals a growing aggression in the way it flexes its economic muscles, analysts say.

Beijing has banned Chinese tour groups from going to the South, hammering its tourist market and the duty-free shops of retail giant Lotte Group, which has been targeted for providing land for the controversial defence system.

Dozens of Lotte stores were closed in China and protests held across the country as Beijing ramped up pressure on Seoul to abandon the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which it sees as a threat to its own military capability.

Lotte also suffered setbacks in several of its Chinese ventures -- from the government-ordered halt of a $2.6 billion theme park project to apparent cyberattacks on company websites.

"If you don't do what Beijing's political leaders want they will punish you economically," said Shaun Rein, founder of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group.

"They put the economic vise on politicians around the world. They have been doing it for years and it works."

Seoul-based tour operator Korea-China International Tourism has reported an 85 percent drop in tourists in recent months, which its founder attributes to China's anger over THAAD.

The company usually receives 4,000 mostly Chinese visitors a month, but that has fallen to around 500 after Beijing warned tourists about the risks of travelling to the South, and ordered Chinese tour operators to stop sending groups there.

- 'Carrot and stick' -

As the world's second-largest economy and biggest trader, China can also inflict pain by blocking certain imports.

Norway learned that lesson the hard way. After the Oslo-based Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Peace Prize to jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, China halted Norwegian salmon exports.

Relations only returned to normal in April after Oslo pledged its commitment to the one-China policy and respect for China's territorial integrity.

Mongolia also incurred Beijing's wrath in November when it allowed the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who China views as a devious separatist, to visit the impoverished landlocked country.

Following the exiled Buddhist monk's visit, China reportedly took punitive measures against Mongolia, including stopping trucks carrying coal from crossing the Chinese border -- a move with heavy repercussions for Mongolian mining concerns.

Tourism to Taiwan has also fallen sharply as relations across the strait worsen.

The Taipei Hotel Association reported decreases of up to 50 percent in Chinese visitors in recent months and warned "the situation could get worse".

"I've been told by friends not to visit Taiwan since the cross-strait situation is tense but I am just a regular citizen so I am not too worried about that," a 58-year-old Chinese man surnamed Liu said in a Taipei duty free shop.

Countries that submit to China's demands, however, can find themselves rewarded.

A ban on 27 Philippine tropical fruit export companies was lifted after President Rodrigo Duterte declared his "separation" from the United States during a visit to Beijing in October, confirming his tilt towards China.

The sanctions had been intended to punish Manila for its South China Sea stance.

South Korea will be hoping for a similar outcome after its new President Moon Jae-In dispatched his envoy Lee Hae-Chan to China after his election victory last week, in an apparent effort to mend fences with Beijing.

"It's a kind of carrot and stick policy. They (China) are doing it to show they have more leverage now and send a signal," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor in political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"The irony is that China has criticised that way of doing things but now China is less hesitant to do the same thing because she's stronger and feels she can do it."

- Filling the void -

Analysts expect China to become even more assertive as it seeks to fill the vacuum created by the US retreat into "America First" policies promoted by President Donald Trump.

"Smaller nations (in Asia) don't feel that Trump is going to support them," said Rein.

But in the case of South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, Beijing has been careful to target specific sectors to avoid disruption that could backfire on Chinese companies.

"It has become a well-developed tool of diplomatic pressure," said Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis of Greater China and North Asia at Control Risks.

burs-amj/lth/rb/mtp

SUPERPOWERS
China killed or jailed up to 20 US spies in 2010-12: report
Washington (AFP) May 20, 2017
Beijing systematically dismantled CIA spying efforts in China beginning in 2010, killing or jailing more than a dozen covert sources, in a deep setback to US intelligence there, The New York Times reported Sunday. The Times, quoting 10 current and former American officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It said that ... read more

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