By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) – All Taiwan wanted to do was to host rugby teams from around the region for a series of matches.
Instead, Chinese representatives challenged the self-ruled island’s proposal this summer, saying China should take over the events. After a month of negotiations, the two sides agreed to take turns hosting the games over the next six years.
Rugby is a minor sport in both places, but diplomats and officials say the spat illustrates China’s willingness to swipe at Taiwan over the pettiest of points.
“They want to entirely block our sporting events. If we are to host one, they will either try to kill it, or try to take the hosting rights from you,” Chinese Taipei Rugby Football Union General Secretary Jeremy Pai, who is involved in the negotiations with China, told Reuters.
The Chinese Rugby Football Association said the challenge simply aimed to promote rugby in China and had no political motivation.
From a painted-over Taiwan flag after a Chinese complaint in Australia, the revocation of an Olympic game in Taiwan, and the sudden absence of two Chinese players in a Taiwan golf competition, China is using the international stage to assert its sovereignty over the island.
China regards Taiwan as a wayward province and has grown increasingly suspicious that the government of President Tsai Ing-wen wants to push for formal independence.
The rising Chinese pressure, which also includes military drills and the snatching of the island’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies, comes ahead of Taiwanese mayoral and magisterial elections this weekend that are seen as a bellwether for the ruling party’s performance in the 2020 presidential race.
Diplomats and observers say no front appears off limits for China in its efforts to diminish Taiwan’s stature. In recent months, that has included rising Chinese scrutiny over how companies from airlines, such as Air Canada, to retailers, such as Gap, refer to the democratic island.
China, which sees Taiwan as the most sensitive issue between it and the United States, is working to stamp out even simple references to the island internationally, they said.
“China is willing to break international norms to pursue its narrow interests,” said a person with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In May, a Taiwan flag students painted on a statue at an Australian festival was covered by local authorities after Chinese consular officers from in Brisbane reported a “problem.”
“The Australian government’s agreement with China is that Australia does not recognize Taiwan as a separate country,” Margaret Strelow, mayor of Rockhampton in central Queensland, wrote in a statement after the incident.
But officials in Taiwan said the Chinese pressure could be counterproductive, as public resentment toward Beijing runs high.
More than 80 percent of Taiwanese think China’s bid to squeeze the island’s international space hurts cross-strait ties, an August poll from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council showed.
“China should think whether such moves would backfire,” said Yao Chia-wen, a senior adviser to the president, adding that Beijing’s “double-edged sword” could reinforce public support for Tsai’s independence-leaning Diplomatic Progressive Party.
Some are ready to challenge China, which has never renounced the use of force against Taiwan.
A referendum popular among younger Taiwanese, which will be on the ballot this weekend, seems calculated to rile Beijing: It asks whether the island should join the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as Taiwan, rather than “Chinese Taipei” – the name agreed to under a compromise in the late 1970s.
“The Chinese suppression on Taiwan will not stop until it was unified by China,” Taiwanese volleyball player Huang Pei-hung wrote in a post widely shared on Facebook to rally support for the referendum. “Please work hard to help rectify Taiwan’s name.”
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Jess Macy Yu; Editing By Gerry Doyle)