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Diplomats from China and Taiwan Scuffle in Fiji

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It was supposed to be a quiet diplomatic event at a stylish beachside hotel in Fiji.

Instead, a reception hosted this month by Taiwan officials in Suva, the capital of Fiji, gave way to a fistfight between officials representing China and Taiwan, in the latest example of rising tensions between the two governments.

Officials in Taipei and Beijing on Monday offered competing accounts of the altercation after reports about the clash spread widely on social media.

They accused each other of initiating the feud and causing injuries. Taiwan said the Chinese government was trying to surveil its staff and guests. Beijing said its officials were carrying out normal duties, and complained that a cake at the event was decorated to look like Taiwan’s flag.

At the heart of the issue is a longstanding dispute over the status of Taiwan, a self-governing island of 24 million people that China claims as its territory. Fears of a military conflict have grown as Beijing has increased the frequency of live-fire drills and adopted a more bellicose tone.

China has led a concerted effort in recent years to undercut Taiwan’s influence on the global stage, including in the Pacific. As part of that campaign, Beijing has poached several allies of Taiwan in the region, despite objections from the United States and other governments.

Those tensions spilled over at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva on Oct. 8, when Taiwan hosted a reception to celebrate its national day before an audience of Fijian officials, scholars and nonprofit workers. (Fiji does not have official relations with Taipei.)

According to Taiwan’s foreign ministry, a pair of Chinese diplomats showed up at the reception uninvited and sought to photograph guests. Beijing has deployed such tactics — turning up at events, taking photographs of people — in recent years to intimidate its rivals and those who support them.

When Taiwanese officials tried to block the Chinese diplomats, the visitors turned violent, according to the ministry. They beat a Taiwanese official so severely that the official was hospitalized, the ministry said.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry on Monday called the actions of the Chinese officials a provocation and said it would work to strengthen security for government workers overseas. In a statement, the ministry said it “strongly condemns the serious violation of the rule of law and civilized norms by the staff of the Chinese Embassy in Fiji.”

The Chinese government disputed that account, saying Taiwan officials had acted “provocatively” and injured one of its diplomats during the scuffle. The Chinese embassy did not explain why its diplomats were at the reception, saying in a statement only that they were “carrying out their official duties” in a public area.

Beijing made clear that it saw the reception as a political threat. While Fiji, an archipelago in the South Pacific, is a longtime ally of Beijing, Taiwan maintains a trade office in Suva and has sought to raise its profile by investing in education and agriculture.

“There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an integral part of China,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday. He called the image on the cake at the event a “fake national flag.”

“Taiwan’s move is intended to create ‘two Chinas’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’ internationally,” he said.

Officials in Fiji did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident resurfaced concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has stepped up efforts to defend the country’s reputation abroad during the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has badly damaged China’s image.

ImagePresident Xi Jinping of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing last month.
Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

Chinese emissaries have increasingly practiced what is known as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, named for two ultrapatriotic Chinese films. But their strident defenses of Chinese policies and attacks on rivals have sometimes backfired, weakening China’s efforts to counter American influence and expand its military and economic power.

Wang Ting-yu, a legislator in Taiwan who specializes in foreign affairs, said the dispute in Fiji showed the excesses of China’s assertive approach.

“China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is a mad dog that bites arbitrarily,” Mr. Wang said in an interview. “The biggest problem in China now is that under Xi Jinping’s rule, their diplomats have turned to seeking private revenge. They have disregarded their country’s diplomatic interests to follow the internal orders of the leaders.”

In mainland China, the incident stoked an outpouring of nationalist sentiment and criticism of Taiwan. By Monday evening, the scuffle in Fiji was one of the most popular topics on Weibo, a microblogging site.

Chinese analysts defended the country’s approach, saying an increasingly hostile international environment meant that Beijing had to act forcefully.

“China is now faced with a pack of wolves, including the Taiwan authorities constantly creating all kinds of troubles in the international community,” Song Zhongping, an independent military analyst based in Hong Kong, said in an interview.

In recent months, Beijing has increased military activities in the strait that separates the mainland from Taiwan and promoted propaganda to signal that China will go to war if necessary to assert control of Taiwan. Taiwan has sought closer ties with the United States, welcoming Trump administration officials in recent months for high-level visits to the island, angering Beijing.

Beijing has intensified its efforts to block symbols of Taiwan’s soft power and de facto independence, denouncing the island’s flag, or events like the national day celebration as illegitimate.

“Talk about squeezing Taiwan’s international space,” Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who studies China and Taiwan, said in an interview. “It’s sad to see even a celebratory reception at a hotel in Fiji is declared a space by the Chinese government that cannot have freedom of assembly.”

Amy Chang Chien and Albee Zhang contributed research.

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