TAIPEI • Next month's World University Games in Taipei have become the latest focal point of tensions between China and Taiwan, with many mainland athletes staying home.
No Chinese teams will take part in the global sporting event that begins on Aug 18 - the largest ever hosted by the diplomatically isolated Taiwan. While Beijing has denied any official boycott, it is the first time in four decades that the Games, also known as the Universiade, would not feature team competitors from the mainland.
But in a possible sign of relief for Taiwan, at least 180 athletes from China signed up between last Friday and Sunday to participate in individual competitions, as opposed to team sports. The registration deadline closes today.
The diminished mainland participation thrusts the competition into the middle of a flare-up in one of Asia's trickiest political disputes. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been seeking to isolate his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen over her refusal to publicly endorse Beijing's assertion that Taiwan is part of China.
Since Ms Tsai took office in May last year, China, which considers Taiwan a province, has picked off two of the island's few remaining diplomatic partners.
In June, Panama announced that it will establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. The Central American nation was one of Taiwan's oldest friends, with ties going back to 1912. Its switch to Beijing came after China reportedly began the construction of a container port with natural gas facilities in Panama's northern province.
The move was widely seen as part of China's bid to clamp down on Taiwan's international space.
In December last year, the West African island of Sao Tome and Principe cut relations with Taiwan and restored ties with China.
The government in Beijing has also curbed tourist trips, pushed foreign countries to deport Taiwanese criminal suspects to the mainland and blocked the island from participating in international bodies.
"A Chinese boycott will have a very big impact," Professor Chen Mu-min of National Chung Hsing University said by phone. "It sends a very strong message to the Taiwanese public; cross-strait relations are bad right now. We won't support or participate in an event you have organised."
China had previously informed the International University Sports Federation that it would not send athletes to compete in any team events in Taipei - the first time since at least 1979. A spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office told reporters in May that the schedule conflicted with its own national games scheduled to begin on Aug 27.
The China Post newspaper has reported Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je as telling the media earlier this month that he had dismissed requests from Chinese officials to block Ms Tsai's participation in the opening ceremony and to downgrade references to her to Taiwan's "leader" rather than "president".
Any attempt to exert political pressure over a sporting event runs contrary to the Chinese government's oft-stated position in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In the face of international criticism over press freedoms, pollution and human rights, then-President Hu Jintao urged foreign reporters not to mix politics and sports.
"China wants to show it's unhappy about the state of cross- strait relations," said Professor Chang Ya-chung from National Taiwan University's department of political science. "This will play on the minds of non-governmental groups organising any kind of exchanges."