A string of Chinese claims that it has arrested spies acting for Taiwan are largely being brushed off by people on the island.
Taiwan holds presidential elections on 20 March, and the suspicion among the island’s sophisticated electorate is that China hopes its claims will damage President Chen Shui-bian.
China has been quick to parade the alleged spies
That is not to say that both sides are not involved in espionage. Beijing and Taipei have spied on each other ever since their split in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war.
The lack of direct communications between the two sides and tense cross strait relations are the main reasons, says defence analyst, Andrew Yang, of the China Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
“Beijing has threatened to use force against Taiwan, and Taiwan needs to understand what Beijing’s options are in terms of its intimidation. And for Beijing, they need to know what is happening in Taiwan – to assess what would the possibilities be of them winning any war should they chose to launch one,” he said.
The latest alleged spy drama was splashed on the front pages of China’s Community Party newspaper, the Global Times.
It follows China’s announcement last December that it had smashed a major spy ring – arresting 24 alleged Taiwanese spies.
They can’t tell us how to vote… I live here – not China
The arrests have been seen as efforts to discredit President Chen.
Reports in China’s official media said the alleged spies were detained after Mr Chen blew their cover by detailing the exact number of missiles China had targeted against Taiwan – a claim officials in Taiwan say is ridiculous, as the information was already in the public domain
Beijing has been angered by Mr Chen’s determination to push ahead with plans for a controversial referendum on the same day, since China interprets as a step towards formal independence.
Voters are to be asked if they back buying advanced anti-missile systems if China does not remove the missiles now pointed at Taiwan; and if they favour new talks with Beijing.
On the streets of Taipei, there was scepticism about the latest claims.
“I think China is trying to use this story to try to help the opposition parties”, said store assistant Amay Chiu. “But I don’t think they can influence voters. Most people like me, we reject this – we say it’s not China’s business. They can’t tell us how to vote.
Some see the spy claims as an attempt to discredit President Chen
“I live here – not China”, she said.
That view was echoed by sales manager, Jensen Huo.
“China will try and influence the election, but Taiwanese people don’t like that kind of behaviour, they don’t like the threats.
“In other words, the Taiwanese people will do whatever they think is the right thing to do; they’ll vote the way they want. They won’t be pressured,” he said.
During the previous two elections in Taiwan, China similarly tried to sway voters. In 1996, China fired missiles into deserted islands across the Taiwan Strait just as voters prepared to directly elect a president for the first time.
In 2000, Beijing threatened to use force if Taiwan refused to discuss unification.
The threat, if anything, was counter-productive, as President Chen narrowly won in a three-way race.
“I think many people here are more likely to vote for Chen Shui-bian again if China increases the level of its threats”, said businesswoman Wendy Wen.
“I think China is still trying to exercise influence in our election, but this time, they are trying to exert influence through business channels. They are putting pressure on people working on the mainland. They’re a bit more subtle.”
China is hoping that Taiwanese businessmen now working on the mainland return to Taiwan to exercise their right to vote.
Many do not need to be urged, as increasing numbers are voicing their frustration at what they see as the lack of progress made by Mr Chen’s administration in easing business restrictions with the mainland.
All this suggests China has grown more sophisticated in its tactics. But Taiwan’s electorate is also more mature, Mr Yang said.
“They’re more sophisticated; more rational in analyzing the effect behind China’s acts.
“Many people simply ignore what China says. They’re more concerned about domestic issues, about the economy, future job prospects and so on,” he said.