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International relations

Taiwan's 'cat warriors' counter attacks from China's 'wolves'

Island has become adept at deflecting diplomatic aggression from Beijing

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's administration is using cat diplomacy to counter China's "wolf warriors." (Nikkei montage/Getty Images and Ken Kobayashi)

TAIPEI -- When a scuffle at a diplomatic party became the latest flashpoint for Beijing to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan, the island used the ugly incident to stand up for its democratic values and highlight the pettiness of China's aggression.

Chinese officials have been accused of gate-crashing an event to commemorate Taiwan's National Day in Fiji on Oct. 8 and starting a melee that left a Taiwanese diplomat in the hospital. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu proclaimed Taiwan a "force for good in the world" and condemned China's "uncivilized 'wolf warriors'" -- a phrase used to describe hawkish diplomacy, taken from a Chinese patriotic action blockbuster.

China's officials were carrying out "official duties" outside the venue when Taiwan staff "acted provocatively," a spokesman for China's foreign ministry told reporters, noting that a "false national flag was openly displayed at the scene, and a cake was also marked with a false national flag."

Taiwan, which China insists is a breakaway province to be taken by force if necessary and forbids international recognition of under its "One China" principle, has become adept at deflecting Chinese diplomatic aggression. The island uses its soft -- or "cat warrior" -- power to counter attacks on its sovereignty, promoting itself as a freedom-loving peaceful nation in contrast to a bellicose China.

Negative views of China have reached historic highs in 14 advanced economies, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center. Global distrust of Beijing has grown as it tightens its grip on Hong Kong and steps up military action across the Asia-Pacific region and amid accusations that China covered up the initial spread of the coronavirus.

"China's international image is deteriorating, while the image of Taiwan is improving dramatically," said one Western diplomat in Taipei, explaining that China is increasingly viewed as a threat to regional stability while Taiwan is recognized for its vibrant democracy and support for human rights.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sided with Taiwan on the Fiji incident, wishing the injured official a safe recovery from his concussion and saying, "This isn't, unfortunately, the first time we've heard allegations of Chinese diplomats behaving inappropriately."

Infringements on what China views as sovereignty issues -- including Taiwan's international status and accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong -- are often met with ham-handed denials or threats from Chinese diplomats. After Canada offered Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters refugee status, Beijing's ambassador appeared to suggest granting of further asylum to Hong Kongers could endanger the "good health and safety" of 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen watches TV with her cat Ah Tsai. (Photo by Office of the President in Taiwan)

The head of Taiwan's de facto embassy in the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, in July described herself as a cat warrior ready to counter Beijing's wolves. "Cats have some special characteristics" she said. "We are very flexible and can find a way to survive in narrow spaces."

Maggie Lewis, a Taiwan expert and law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said, "Cat warrior diplomacy emphasizes flexibility and agility in the face of a powerful force." She explained that Taiwan has a "positive story" as a strong, stable democracy to share with the world.

Earlier this month, China's diplomats in New Delhi sparked controversy by sending "guidelines" to Indian journalists telling them not to refer to Taiwan as a country or nation. The guidelines were shared on Twitter and denounced by netizens from both democracies.

The hashtags #TaiwanNationalDay and #TaiwanIsACountry were widely shared on Twitter in India, and posters congratulating Taiwan on its National Day appeared near the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi -- a major embarrassment to the wolf warriors. India is now reportedly moving toward formal talks on a trade agreement with Taiwan in spite of threats from China, India's largest trade partner.

President Tsai Ing-wen seized the diplomatic opportunity by sharing photos of herself at the Taj Mahal, praising India's vibrant culture and celebrating its cuisine. "I always go for chana masala and naan," she wrote on Twitter, attracting widespread coverage in Indian media.

"Taiwan seems to be following the motto of turning every crisis into an opportunity," said Sana Hashmi, a Taiwan fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University and former consultant with India's Ministry of External Affairs.

Taiwan, which has so far controlled COVID-19, with just over 500 cases, has assisted the global pandemic response by donating more than 50 million Taiwan-made face masks to countries in need and inviting foreign leaders to visit and learn from its coronavirus successes.

When Czech parliamentary Speaker Milos Vystrcil visited Taiwan and declared, "I am Taiwanese," China threatened Prague with a "heavy price" for the show of solidarity.

In a rare rebuke to China, French and German foreign ministers spoke up to say the European Union would not tolerate threats to its member states. The incident formed part of the EU's "waking up to the new reality of China as a 'systemic rival,'" Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a Taiwan fellow at Academia Sinica and former political adviser at the European Parliament, told Nikkei Asia.

Meanwhile, recent visits by Health Secretary Alex Azar and Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Keith Krach to Taiwan -- the highest-level U.S. officials to visit the island since 1979 -- prompted China to buzz jets around the island and threaten "necessary" retaliation.

Chinese state media warned Taiwan not to be used as a pawn by the United States during ongoing trade, security and tech tensions between the world's two biggest economies.

"Nonsense," presidential office spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka tweeted in another deft use of soft power. "We are just a smart country that happens to love democracy and bubble tea."

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