China and Taiwan Exchange Jabs Over Diplomats’ Dustup in Fiji

Beijing and Taipei traded blame for a physical clash between their diplomats in the Pacific island nation of Fiji this month, an unusual flare-up as China intensifies efforts to assert its territorial claims over the island democracy of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry on Monday accused two Chinese Embassy officials of provoking an altercation that left a Taiwanese diplomat hospitalized with a concussion, as the pair tried to force their way into an Oct. 8 reception hosted by Taipei’s trade office in Fiji. The Chinese Embassy in Fiji countered with allegations that Taiwanese officials had acted provocatively toward its staff and injured one of them.

In recent months, China has escalated its pressure campaign against Taiwan, sending warplanes and naval vessels near the island with rising frequency and conducting large-scale invasion drills. Such military activities, which Beijing suggests were aimed at deterring Taiwanese independence, have drawn criticism from Taipei and Washington.

Taipei denounced the Fiji dustup as a Chinese provocation. Speaking to Taiwanese lawmakers on Monday, Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Harry Tseng condemned Chinese diplomats for using what he called “irrational methods” to disrupt a peaceful event, and said the foreign ministry is looking into whether the incident was an isolated case or typical behavior. Asked whether such altercations have happened before, Mr. Tseng said past instances hadn’t been as severe.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the allegations were untrue. He accused Taiwanese officials in Fiji of trying to advocate for Taiwan’s independence, citing the display of flags and a cake decoration at the reception.

Fiji’s Foreign Ministry didn’t immediately respond to queries.

China’s Communist Party has sought to gain control over Taiwan since Mao Zedong’s forces seized power on the Chinese mainland in 1949 and drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government to retreat to the island.

The two governments have competed for influence in the Pacific Ocean, where Taipei maintains diplomatic relations with four countries, though Fiji—which has formal ties with China—isn’t among them. Beijing and Taipei have refused to diplomatically recognize any nation that recognizes the other, and each side has offered generous aid in the past to attract allies from among developing countries.

Since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, China has ramped up efforts to poach the island’s diplomatic partners—now numbering just 15—as a way to punish her ruling party’s advocacy of a Taiwanese identity distinct from mainland China. The Pacific has emerged as a battleground, where island nations are small enough that Taiwan can compete against China’s growing economic heft.

Taiwanese diplomats also blamed the Fiji clash on China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—an epithet for the more brash demeanor that Chinese officials have adopted in asserting Beijing’s interests abroad.

Beijing’s assertive diplomacy was on show in the Pacific in June when the Solomon Islands province of Malaita thanked Taiwan for its Covid-19 assistance, and Chinese officials complained the gesture suggested that Taiwan was independent. The Solomon Islands ended 36 years of diplomatic ties with Taipei last year, recognizing Beijing instead.

The altercation in Fiji took place at a hotel where Taipei’s de facto embassy was hosting a reception marking the Oct. 10 National Day of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known.

According to Taipei’s account, two staffers from the Chinese Embassy were trying to force their way into the event to take photos and collect information on guests. When Taiwanese officials tried to stop them, the Chinese pair reacted violently and injured one Taiwanese official, who was sent to a hospital with a mild concussion and has been discharged, said Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry.

Ms. Ou said Fiji police removed the Chinese diplomats from the venue, though the pair told police they were attacked by Taiwanese personnel. The Chinese side was “trying to invert right and wrong by obscuring the facts,” she said, adding that Taiwan has lodged complaints with Fijian authorities.

The Chinese Embassy in Fiji rejected Taipei’s allegations as “totally inconsistent with facts.” In a Monday statement, the embassy said its staff were carrying out their official duties when Taiwanese personnel injured a Chinese diplomat. It didn’t elaborate on the nature of the injuries.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed the embassy’s statement, saying, “The Taiwanese side is the thief shouting, ‘Catch the thief.’ ” Speaking at a routine briefing Monday, Mr. Zhao characterized the event as an attempt to promote the notion of “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” citing the display of “pseudo national flags,” including one that appeared on a cake.

Official flags of the Republic of China were displayed at the reception, according to images of the event published by Taipei’s trade office in Fiji. First adopted by the Chinese Nationalist government in the 1920s, the flag has become a sensitive symbol under the Communist Party, which has censored images of the banner.

Write to Chun Han Wong at [email protected]

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