Beijing is growing increasingly concerned that Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party favors a formal declaration of independence from China, will be reelected as president of Taiwan in January.
“We’re seeing Beijing bringing a whole range of tools to bear in order to influence Taiwan and ultimately stop Taiwan from going down the road to de jure independence,” said Adam Ni, a China expert at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“So they’re inflicting economic pain, stepping up military posturing, using psychological pressure and building pressure to influence the constituency,” he said.
China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism said Wednesday that it would suspend approvals for tourist visa applications from citizens wanting to travel to Taiwan on individual trips, effective Thursday.
Mainland Chinese require a special permit to visit Taiwan because of the sensitive situation between the mainland and island, but since 2011 officials have promoted the arrangement to foster people-to-people exchanges.
The change does not apply to group tours, but it could still inflict significant economic damage on Taiwan’s tourism industry. More than 1 million individual mainland Chinese visitors arrived on this kind of travel permit last year, out of a total of 2.69 million arrivals, according to the island’s immigration authorities.
Travel agents were caught by surprise by the move. “Everyone in the tourism industry is expecting some reactions from the mainland prior to major political events, but nobody expected it to come so soon, as the elections are still months away,” said Ting Lai, vice chairman of the Travel Agent Association in Taiwan.
He estimated that the change would keep at least half a million mainlanders from traveling to the island before the Jan. 11 election. “But there is no way to know exactly how many individual travelers will be canceling their Taiwan trips. We can just wait and see,” he said.
Mainland Chinese wanting to travel to the island hurried to administrative offices on Wednesday afternoon to get permits while they were still available.
“The moment I saw the news today, I knew that I should go out and get an exit permit, just in case,” said Liu Ming, a 38-year-old freelance photographer based in Chengdu.
“I don’t actually have specific plans for Taiwan this year, but with the papers in hand at least I will be able to go if the opportunity arises,” said Liu, who sometimes gets assignments to shoot weddings in overseas locations, including Taiwan.
The travel restrictions are an “overt public message” to Taiwan from Beijing, said Margaret Lewis, an expert on Taiwan at Seton Hall University.
“There is no doubt that this is an escalation,” she said. “The question is how far it will escalate and what could defuse it.”
The Communist Party in Beijing views democratic Taiwan, which broke with the communist mainland in 1949, as a renegade province that should be reunited with the mainland. It has taken an increasingly combative stance since Tsai was elected leader of the self-ruled island in 2016.
In a defense white paper published last week, officials of the People’s Liberation Army repeatedly warned that Beijing would be willing to use military force to assert its claims over Taiwan if necessary.
China’s navy sailed its aircraft carrier into the Taiwan Strait in early July in a show of force, and the PLA has sent warships into the waters surrounding Taiwan this week as part of annual drills.
Analysts said the week-long exercises were bigger than usual this year, a move designed to send a “deterrent” message.
Taiwan responded with exercises of its own, firing 117 medium- and long-range missiles on Monday and Tuesday and sending two F-16 fighter jets into the sky to “simulate an attack on a high-value maritime target off Taiwan’s southeast coast,” Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said.
The tensions are raising concerns about a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, one of the world’s most heavily militarized areas.
They come amid closer relations between the Trump administration and Taiwan, which agreed this month to buy $2.2 billion in weapons, including M1A2T Abrams tanks and Stinger missiles, from the United States.
Tsai made two stops in the United States this month, including visiting diplomats at the United Nations in New York. Her tweets from there angered Beijing, which strongly objects to any suggestion that Taiwan is a country in its own right. This week, Tsai is in Britain and has been tweeting about “shared values.”
But most alarming for Beijing has been the boost she has received from the events in Hong Kong, which appear to show the perils of becoming too close to mainland China.
Protesters have taken to the streets for eight weekends in a row to demonstrate against an extradition bill that would allow suspects to be taken to the mainland and increasingly to call for greater rights, including democracy.
China has responded angrily, hinting that it might send in the military if the Hong Kong authorities cannot get the situation under control. Thugs thought to be linked to Chinese gangs also have been pictured beating protesters.
Scenes of increasingly heavy-handed Chinese influence in the semiautonomous territory, despite a purported “one country, two systems” framework, have brought home to many Taiwanese the risks of closer relations with the mainland.
This has contributed to a bump in opinion polls for Tsai as she has called for greater independence for the island state, and she has sought to capitalize on this.
After reports that more than a dozen protesters from Hong Kong had fled to Taiwan, Tsai said she would follow “humanitarian principles” in dealing with asylum seekers, even though Taiwan does not have a formal refugee policy.
“This was an overt way of showing that Taiwan will defend freedom and democracy,” Lewis said.
The differences between Taiwan and the mainland have been growing increasingly stark, she added. “There is an increasing divergence across the strait when it comes to freedom of expression and association and how they can be exercised,” Lewis said.
Beijing has to make sure not to overdo it, said Ni of Macquarie University. “They want to maximize pressure on Taiwan while making sure it doesn’t backfire on them.”
Lyric Li contributed to this report.