Amid tensions, Hong Kong remains a key venue for diplomatic talks

Two events last week highlighted the city’s tactical importance both as a middle ground and gatekeeper to the international community

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 9:47pm

Two events last week did not attract much media attention, but they were significant in reflecting Hong Kong’s special role in the country’s diplomacy and Beijing’s cautiousness over the complexity of the city’s open connections with the international community.

First, the city denied a visa for a Taiwanese lawmaker from the island’s ruling Democratic Progress Party to attend the Social Enterprise World Forum here. Taipei expressed regret, complaining that the rejection was unreasonable.

Although the decision was made by Hong Kong immigration, it was seen as keeping in line with Beijing’s efforts to minimise Taiwan’s presence on the international stage due to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to recognise the 1992 One China consensus.

In another development, former Philippine president Fidel Ramos, who is currently the special envoy of President Rodrigo Duterte, reportedly cancelled his planned visit to Beijing. But he made a trip to Hong Kong in August in an attempt to soothe tension between the two countries over to the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Ramos claimed he met “old friends with links to [President] Xi Jinping” in Hong Kong. Obviously, complicated negotiations of such magnitude could hardly produce concrete results in one go, which is why both Manila and Beijing agreed Hong Kong was a more suitable venue to avoid the pitfalls of possible diplomatic embarrassment.

The city has been a venue of special diplomatic significance since colonial times.

During the many rounds of Sino-British talks in the 1990s on the transitional arrangements for Hong Kong’s return to China, the foreign ministry’s weekly briefing was a “must go” occasion for many Hong Kong reporters because it was where we could at least get a “diplomatic” sound bite.

Taiwanese reporters would also attend for similar reasons, looking for information that would resonate back home.

We had to phrase our questions carefully with a “diplomatic” angle in order to get an answer. While Hong Kong questions were usually related to the diplomatic wrestling between Beijing and London, our Taiwanese counterparts would try to come up with the international “lebensraum” perspective.

Beijing surely does not want Hong Kong to be the convenient facilitator of Taiwan’s international presence.

After 1997, Hong Kong reporters gradually stopped attending the briefings, unless we had something specific to ask about the nation’s foreign affairs, simply because the spokesman would remind us that it was no longer the forum to comment specifically on the city as it was already a part of China. The standard answer to any question reflecting international concern about the city would be that no foreign government or force should interfere.

Yet, under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, the city still has some diplomatic clout. Also when it comes to Taiwan, there can be multi-dimensional considerations for both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, since any official exchange between the city and Taiwan needs the approval of the central government.

Xi Jinping reaffirms Beijing’s opposition to ‘Taiwan separatist forces’

Thus, despite arguments from time to time over whether the entry of certain Taiwanese political figures is an internal matter for Hong Kong itself to handle – as such issues, theoretically, are neither the “external” nor “defence” affairs that Beijing is responsible for – the reality is that Hong Kong, as an international city, could complicate things, as in the denial of the Taiwanese lawmaker’s visa. Beijing surely does not want Hong Kong to be the convenient facilitator of Taiwan’s international presence.

That was not an isolated case. On the eve of the September 4 Legislative Council elections, three Taiwanese speakers were also banned from joining a seminar organised by a Hong Kong-based Taiwanese cultural exchange institution.

Organiser Susie Chiang, who is a cross-strait relations expert, admitted that current Taipei-Beijing tensions were “out of my imagination”. She believed the entry refusal was not just due to Beijing’s concerns about emerging calls for independence in the city, but also Beijing’s total ban on exchanges with the Tsai administration, at least for now.

Hong Kong can be a perfect venue for sensitive diplomatic talks and a thermometer for the unstable mainland-Taiwan weather.