Murder case that helped spark Hong Kong political crisis is now an election issue for Taiwan
The situation surrounding a Hong Kong man accused of murder in Taiwan has become a diplomatic dispute - and it concerns the sensitive issue surrounding Taiwan's sovereignty as the self-ruled island enters its election season.
The case will "feature heavily in Taiwan media once he returns," said Kelsey Broderick, China analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. She said that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could benefit "if they portray the incident as example of the party being tough on China and tough on crime."
Chan Tong-kai allegedly murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan, before fleeing to Hong Kong in February 2018. He has said he wants to surrender to Taiwanese authorities. But on Wednesday, Chan was released from a Hong Kong prison as authorities in the two territories tussled over how to deliver him to Taiwan, as it does not have an extradition agreement with the city.
Tsai and her ruling party are "certainly looking" to secure political capital ahead of the election as they present themselves as defenders of Taiwan's sovereignty, said Zhixing Zhang, senior East Asia analyst at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
"Essentially, Taipei is playing up the sovereignty matter in the current legal disputes, arguing that the Hong Kong government's refusal to establish a legal framework plays into Beijing's "One Country" narrative, and undermines Taiwan's judicial independence," Zhang told CNBC in an email.
Beijing considers self-ruled Taiwan to be a wayward province and and has been using increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the island to push for a reunification after a civil war split the two territories 70 years ago.
Chan's case became the impetus for a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong that would have allowed fugitives to be turned over to authorities in places like China, Taiwan and Macao.
That proposed bill sparked mass protests that have gripped Hong Kong for the last five months, amid concern that the legislation could erode the city's autonomy, making it a less attractive place to do business. That bill was officially killed in the city's legislature on Wednesday, but demonstrations are expected to continue amid broader anti-government sentiment.
Stratfor's Zhang added that it is "one of the key issues has to do with Taiwan's status, as Hong Kong would certainly not risk Beijing's ire to set up a legal framework with Taipei without Beijing's consent."
Murder suspect in limbo
But without an extradition agreement, Chan remains in limbo because the alleged murder took place in Taiwan meaning he cannot be tried in Hong Kong.
Tsai's government asked Hong Kong for specific legal assistance because otherwise "it would imply that Chan's transfer was an 'internal China' transfer and not an official country-to-country transfer," Eurasia's Broderick explained to CNBC.
Hong Kong'sgovernment called the request "an excuse which has nothing to do with self-surrender" and rejected Taiwan's offer to fly in Taiwanese law enforcement officers to escort Chan. The proposal is "cross-jurisdiction law enforcement" and represents "a disrespect for Hong Kong's jurisdictional power and is totally unacceptable," Hong Kong's government said in a statement on Wednesday.
Instead, Hong Kong said Chan "could go to Taiwan accompanied by persons of his choice." The city said it no longer had the authority to restrict his travel as he already completed his sentence for money laundering charges.
Taiwan rebuked Hong Kong's suggestions, saying it was " incredible" that Chan could be expected to board a flight to Taiwan own his own, "completely ignoring the safety of passengers on the same flight just to serve the political arrangement of a 'surrender.'"
A boost at the voting booth
China has held out Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" arrangement as the model for Taiwan, but the recent social unrest in Hong Kong has heightened Taiwanese concerns about the structure and boosted support for Tsai, who is seeking a second termin the January 2020 presidential election.
The opposition Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party will likely argue that Tsai and her DPP party are "ignoring justice to gain votes," Eurasia's Broderick said.
"However, they are unlikely to find significant support given high concerns over sovereignty in Taiwan and the fact that Chan will immediately be put on trial when he returns to Taiwan," she said.
Tsai has refused to acknowledge Beijing's "One China" principle, which stipulates that Taiwan is part of China, bringing Taiwan's relationship with the mainland to a low since she was elected. She has also recently rejected Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula for Taiwan, according to the territory's Central News Agency.
"From Taipei's perspective, a legal framework could arguably help justify its status as an independent jurisdiction from mainland China, therefore strengthening Tsai Ing-wen's independence-leaning electoral campaign," Zhang added.