Authorities in Hong Kong have shut down the city's representative office on the democratic island of Taiwan, saying the move isn't linked to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases there.
The Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office (Taiwan) (HKETCO) temporarily suspended operations on Tuesday, the government said in a statement.
"The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will continue to handle general enquiries and requests for assistance made by Hong Kong residents in Taiwan, as well as provide Taiwan residents with information related to Hong Kong, through the hotline services of 1823 and 1868, and the GovHK website," it said.
A Hong Kong government spokesperson told RFA on Tuesday: "This has nothing to do with the current outbreak in Taiwan," before declining to comment further.
The move, which comes as China's ruling Communist Party (CCP) seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, has sparked fears that Taiwan’s representative office in Hong Kong may soon face the same fate.
The office has 12 staff, four of whom were sent from Hong Kong, and eight of whom are Taiwan nationals.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) has said that the Hong Kong authorities have yet to clarify what will happen to the eight Taiwanese officials currently based in Hong Kong after their visas expire at the end of the year.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Hong Kong also has 55 local staff, and has been unable to obtain a visa for newly appointed chief.
A unilateral decision
MAC spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng told Taiwan's Legislative Yuan on May 10 that the office had applied, but has yet to receive a response from the immigration authorities.
Chiu told RFA on Tuesday: "The Hong Kong office in Taiwan ... has been in operation for many years. Today, the Hong Kong government unilaterally made this decision. We regret this."
"Regardless of the reason for the Hong Kong government's decision to temporarily suspend the operation of the Taiwan office, we respect it," he added.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted Hong Kong sources as saying that the reason for the suspension of the Hong Kong office in Taiwan was that the head of the office had also been unable to get a work visa from the Taiwan authorities.
But another source said the office had never replaced its chief representative in Taiwan after their visa expired, nor had it applied for work permits for their replacement.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has withheld a visa to TECO's new head, Lu Chang-shui, since 2018, amid heightened saber-rattling from China following the landslide election victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president Tsai Ing-wen.
TECO-Hong Kong, which is run by the MAC, was set up in July 2011 during a period of closer ties between Taiwan and Beijing.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the CCP, nor has it ever formed part of the People's Republic of China, but Beijing has refused to enter government-to-government talks with Taipei, while repeatedly threatening to use military force to annex the country.
Former TECO-Hong Kong chief Kao Ming-tsun and three other officials were forced to return to Taiwan in 2020 after Hong Kong refused to renew their visas.
They were reportedly denied visas after refusing to sign an affidavit recognizing Beijing's territorial ambitions in Taiwan.
Political commentator Sang Pu said the main question in everyone's mind is what will now be the fate of the Taiwan office in Hong Kong.
'Gone in no time'
"Everyone knows that the Taiwan offices in Hong Kong are basically waiting for their Taiwanese employees' visas to expire, after which point they will be gone in no time," Sang told RFA.
"There is no way for them to keep operating, because they won't acknowledge [Beijing's claim on Taiwan]," he said.
"Will that process now be accelerated? It seems that there is now a higher risk of that happening," he said.
Declining ties between the two economies prompt questions over future trading patterns.
Taiwan is currently Hong Kong's second largest trading partner, and Hong Kong is Taiwan's fourth largest trading partner.
Bilateral trade grew from more than H.K.$410 billion in 2019 to H.K.$500 billion in 2020, an increase of 20.4 percent.
Hong Kong is also an important mid-point for trade between Taiwan and mainland China, with entrepot trade topping H.K.$420 billion in 2020, 80 percent of which is electronic parts and appliances, including integrated circuits, diodes, transistors, and other semiconductor devices being exported from Taiwan for China.
Chiu Jyun-rong, economics professor at Taiwan's National Central University, said Chinese factories could experience some difficulty in obtaining parts and components in the face of worsening bilateral trade ties.
"When it comes to electronic components, Taiwan's supply chain won't be so badly affected," Chiu said. "But I expect the impact on China will be bigger."
Reported by Man Hoi Yan and Chung Yut-yiu for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.