Can China get away with abducting people overseas?

Story highlights

  • Cole: Beijing "will not hesitate to break agreements or international conventions to further its aims"
  • This suggests "no one is safe anymore" from risk of abduction by Chinese agents
  • The Kenya crisis will rock the foundations of the cross-straits "status quo"

(CNN)Editor's note: J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow with the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute and editor-in-chief of Thinking-Taiwan.com -- which is affiliated with an organization founded by Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen. The views expressed are his own.

The ongoing crisis over the deportation by Kenyan authorities of 45 Taiwanese nationals to China has sparked consternation in Taipei and accusations of international kidnapping worldwide.
    Besides the fact that the individuals were cleared of all crimes by a Kenyan court, their extradition to China, ostensibly due to pressure from Chinese officials, raises essential questions about the future implications of the "one China" policy in a time of greater Chinese assertiveness.
    China's extraterritorial reach worldwide is also cause for apprehension among Taiwanese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong activists who now live and travel under the shadow of possible capture and extradition to China for any "crimes" as defined by Beijing's intentionally vague National Security Law.
    Coming in the wake of China's alleged kidnapping of five Hong Kong booksellers, this outrage suggests that nobody is safe anymore and that Beijing will not hesitate to break agreements or international conventions to further its aims. In fact, even being a foreign national, as two of the booksellers were (and one of the Taiwanese workers reportedly is), no longer confers the kind of protections that are assumed in such situations.
    Although such action risks being counterproductive in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese, this is possibly a case where ideology is driving policy in China, perhaps the result of domestic developments that are forcing President Xi Jinping's government to adopt a harder line on Taiwan and other "peripheries."
    Given its economic sway over a number of countries worldwide, and the apparent reluctance of the international community to push back whenever it breaks international law, it seems unlikely Beijing will run out of willing partners to enforce its rigid definition of "one China" anytime soon.
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    Fatal blow for cross-strait relations?

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    The alleged abduction of the Taiwanese workers casts serious doubt on Beijing's willingness to maintain a constructive relationship with Taiwan a little more than a month before a new administration is sworn in in Taipei.
    In Taiwan, the reaction to what, for all intents and purposes, amounts to the kidnapping of Taiwanese nationals, has had a rallying impact similar to that seen when Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese K-Pop singer, was forced to make an ISIS-style video apologizing for displaying the Republic of China's flag in a promotional clip.
    Besides the consternation that has pervaded Taiwanese society upon seeing their compatriots nabbed by Kenyan police and shoved, black hoods on their heads, onto a China Southern airplane, politicians from all sides are now calling into question the eight years of rapprochement under President Ma Ying-jeou, who steps down on May 20.
    The "status quo" that has served as the foundation of cross-straits ties, as well as the different interpretations of "one China" that have provided the necessary flexibility for the two sides to co-exist, now seem under assault by Beijing.
    In fact, many of the key accomplishments of the "Beijing-friendly" Ma are now regarded in an entirely new light; rather than instruments of normalization and reciprocity, it is now difficult not to regard those successes cynically, as mere tools for Beijing to lock Taiwan ever more tightly into its embrace.
    The Mainland Affairs Council, the agency in charge of communicating with Beijing, has been denied access to the 45 Taiwanese and authorities in Taiwan are being kept largely in the dark.
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    Moreover, the handling of the matter demonstrates that the joint crime-fighting agreement signed between the two sides in 2009 -- the very kind of agreement that would come into play in such a situation -- is effectively a dead instrument which Beijing can ignore as it sees fit. The same conceivably applies to the twenty or so other agreements signed between the two sides since 2008.
    Beijing's behavior will only succeed in alienating ordinary Taiwanese, among whom support for unification is at an all-time, single-digit low. For President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, this incident creates a challenge, as she will have to continue negotiating with a regime that has no compunction in breaking the rules and which is keen to extend the reach of its laws to include Taiwanese citizens, wherever they are.