Taiwan-Macau Ties Strained over Cross-Strait Tensions

Taiwan-Macau Ties Strained over Cross-Strait Tensions

Taiwan-Macau Ties Strained over Cross-Strait Tensions

On June 27, Acting Director Chen Chia-hung (陳佳鴻) of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Macau (TECO, 台北經濟文化辦事處[澳門辦事處]) was forced to return to Taiwan because he had refused to sign a letter agreeing to the “One-China Principle” (一中原則). Chen, whose visa to remain in Macau expired on June 27 and was not extended, did not sign the “One-China Commitment Letter” (一中承諾書) , which has become a controversial prerequisite for both issuance and renewal of visas for Taiwanese officials in Macau and Hong Kong. With the longest TECO staff member’s visa valid until the end of October 2022, Taipei could face a scenario where it will not have any Taiwanese personnel to maintain normal operations in its Macau office after November of next year. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) tightening grip on Hong Kong and pressure campaign against Taiwan have created new strains in the island-democracy’s ties with not only Hong Kong but also Macau.

Macau as Exemplary Model of “One Country, Two Systems”

Two years after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Portugal returned Macau to Beijing in December 1999, marking the end of 442 years of Portuguese rule over the tiny port city on the south coast of China. From the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) historical perspective, the political fates of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are interlinked and have implications for China’s national unification plans. [1] Upon witnessing Macau’s handover to Chinese rule, Chinese President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) commented, “The implementation of the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong and Macau has played and will continue to play an important exemplary role for our eventual settlement of the Taiwan question.” [2] However, Macau’s unique political and economic relationship with Beijing has made it a more preferable model than Hong Kong in touting the benefits of “one country, two systems” (一國兩制), and in carrying out united front (統一戰線) work targeting Taiwan. [3]

Since 1999, the Macau Special Administrative Region (澳門特別行政區) has taken a starkly different path than Hong Kong, by demonstrating unusual political obedience and “patriotism” towards Chinese authorities. Unlike its neighbor Hong Kong, Macau has been firmly under the CCP’s control and its people do not openly voice opposition to the “one country, two systems” governance model. Nearly half of Macau’s current population came from China and possesses a strong Chinese national—as opposed to local—identity. Not to mention that the Chinese government has also poured significant financial resources into expanding Macau’s economy, a major gambling hub, which over time has resulted in Macau having a higher per capita GDP than Hong Kong. Such factors have conditioned Macau into becoming a pro-China territory.

In addition, Macau does not have to contend with the persistent pro-democracy movement seen in Hong Kong—and has shown no sympathy for social movements in Hong Kong. Macau’s chief executive is selected by an elite group of politicians and businessmen, without direct input from the general public. In Hong Kong, Beijing’s electoral reform measures that aim to diminish direct popular voting and promote pro-China politicians have resulted in further antagonism between pro-democracy Hong Kong residents, on the one hand, and SAR and Chinese authorities, on the other hand. Most Macau residents notably did not support the 2019 anti-extradition bill (反送中) protests in Hong Kong, and the city lacks the kind of pro-democratic movement demanding more autonomy, as has been seen in Hong Kong. On the 20th anniversary of Macau’s handover, Xi praised Macau’s “patriotism” as a major reason for the success of its “one country, two systems” formula.

Opening Mutual Representative Offices

Prior to its handover to the PRC in 1999, Macau served as an important venue for Taiwanese exchanges with China in the absence of direct transportation links. Taipei’s policy exempted Macau from its ban on direct links with China. [4] Indeed, both Macau and Hong Kong were major gateways for Taiwanese travelers to China before direct flights between China and Taiwan commenced in 2008. [5] In the 1990s, Taiwanese businessmen traveled frequently to Macau and used the city as a base for their investments in China, with a significant number of Taiwanese-financed projects situated in the Pearl River Delta surrounding Macau. [6]

In order to manage these growing ties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP, 民進黨) presidency of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) urged Macau and Hong Kong to open representative offices on the island in 2001, but to no avail. [7] However, during the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the reduction of cross-Strait tensions led to new milestones in Taiwan’s relations with both Macau and Hong Kong. Macau authorities made strengthening ties with Taipei a priority, even seeking to emulate the model of Fujian-Taiwan economic cooperation. [8] Moreover, Taiwan’s representative office in Macau was upgraded to become the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in July 2011, following a similar name change to its representative office in Hong Kong. [9]    

Macau also opened an economic and cultural office (澳門經濟文化辦事處) in Taiwan in 2012. Macau authorities said in 2011 that the opening of mutual representative offices was based on mutual agreement upon the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識)—a historical point that the current SAR government recently highlighted when it announced in June 2021 that it was shuttering its liaison office in Taipei. [10]

Recent Blows to Taiwan-Macau Relations

Taiwan’s relations with Macau and Hong Kong have become the latest casualty of worsening tensions between Taipei and Beijing. The Hong Kong government announced the immediate closure of its Taiwan office on May 18, 2021. It later lashed out at Taiwan’s support for anti-extradition bill protests, accusing the island of “offering assistance to violent protesters and people who tried to shatter Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”  Some scholars argue that the CCP views Taiwan as an external force affecting Hong Kong’s stability, and thus wants to stamp out Taiwanese support for dissent in Hong Kong.

Macau soon followed with an announcement on June 16 that that it was also closing its Taiwan office on June 19, citing Taipei’s refusal to issue visa extensions to its officials. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) refuted such assertions and accused the Macau government of “making unreasonable political demands” for renewing the visas of Taipei’s Macau office staff. [11] Since January 2019, the Macau government, purportedly under Beijing’s directive, has imposed political requirements on the staff of the Taiwanese representative office in Macau, according to MAC officials. SAR authorities in both Macau and Hong Kong have tied visa extensions for Taiwanese representative staff to their backing of the “One-China Commitment Letter.” Some commentators believe that the Macau government’s decision to close its Taiwan office was primarily related to the state of tense cross-Strait relations and that Beijing played a major role in this move.

In another blow to Taiwan’s official ties to Hong Kong and Macau, several Taiwanese officials stationed in these territories did not sign the “One-China” affidavit and thus were forced to return home after their visas expired and were not renewed. MAC Minister Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) said Taipei will never agree to accept such an unreasonable request to sign the “One-China Commitment Letter.” The deadlock over the commitment letter may mean that Taipei may not have any Taiwanese staff members left in its Hong Kong office after the remaining staff visas expire at the end of July, and may also face a similar situation in its Macau office after November 2022. The MAC is not optimistic about the future of its Hong Kong and Macau offices. The deadlock between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait—and thus Taiwan’s ties with Hong Kong and Macau—may not see signs of easing in the next few years.

Tightened Restrictions on Macau Residents

In light of Beijing’s tightening control over its Special Administrative Regions, Taiwan’s government has moved to beef up restrictions on Macau and Hong Kong residents seeking to apply for residency on the island. A new question has been added to the Taiwan residency application form targeting people from Macau and Hong Kong: Have you ever declared your support for the Basic Law and loyalty to the Hong Kong and Macau governments? Applicants must also indicate whether they currently or have previously served in the governments of Hong Kong or Macau. The MAC said that if Hong Kong and Macau residents pose a danger to Taiwan’s national interests, their application may be rejected.

Taiwan’s relations with Hong Kong and Macau have served as indicators for its relations with China: that is, the deterioration, or improvement, in cross-Strait relations have and will continue to have spillover effects on Taiwan’s ties with Hong Kong and Macau. In the current political climate, Taipei may not see improvements in its relations with both Special Administrative Regions until there is an easing of cross-Strait tensions. However, Beijing’s strategy to isolate Taiwan from Macau and Hong Kong may backfire against its national unification plans, since the CCP has sought to utilize Macau and Hong Kong, in particular, to attract Taipei towards its “one country, two systems” mode of governance.

The main point: Taiwan’s relations with Macau are indicators for its relations with China. The current downturn in cross-Strait relations will continue to have negative implications for Taiwan’s ties with Macau.

[1] “Chinese President Says Taiwan Next After Macau Handover, Agence France Presse,” December 19, 1999, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “Macau’s Bridge to Taiwan,” South China Morning Post, December 22, 1999, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[4] “Report: Taiwan Will Retaliate Against Ill Treatment from Macau,” Associated Press International, December 21, 1999, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[5] “The Political Scene: Relations between Taiwan and Macau Receive a Boost,” Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Country Reports, December 1, 2011, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[6] “Report: Taiwan Will Retaliate Against Ill Treatment from Macau.”

[7] “Taiwan Urges Hong Kong, Macau to Open Offices in Taipei,” Agence France Presse, June 1, 2001, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[8] “Macau Chief Executive Looks to Deepen Ties with Taiwan,” IHS Global Insight, August 31, 2010, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[9] “The Political Scene: Relations between Taiwan and Macau Receive a Boost.”

[10] “Taiwan Expresses Regret over Macau’s Suspension of Rep. Office,” Japan Economic Newswire, June 16, 2021, retrieved in Nexis Uni.

[11] Ibid.