By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's government believes China is set to renew a charm offensive targeting "opinion leaders" to win hearts and minds as the island gears up for a presidential election in less than a year, a security agency said in an internal report.
China, which views democratically governed Taiwan as its own, has long taken a carrot and stick approach to the island, threatening it with the prospect of military action while reaching out to those it believes are amenable to Beijing's point of view.
As Taipei and Beijing gradually resume travel links halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan security officials expect China to relaunch an influence campaign that in the past included all-expenses-paid trips to China for Taiwan politicians.
From this month, the campaign will focus on invitations for "opinion leaders" to visit China, a Taiwan security agency looking into Chinese activities on the island said in the classified report, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.
"The Chinese Communist Party is developing its exchange programmes with Taiwan for the year. Various Taiwan-related agencies will gradually resume their invitations to Taiwan people on all levels to visit the mainland," the agency said in the February report, citing intelligence information.
With Taiwan's presidential vote due in January next year, officials worry that Beijing could try to stir animosity towards the government of President Tsai Ing-wen.
China refuses to talk to the government, believing Tsai is a separatist for refusing to accept Beijing's long-standing position that China and Taiwan both belong to "one China".
Tsai rejects China's territorial claims and says only the island's 23 million people can decide their future, though she has repeatedly offered talks with Beijing.
China, which has never renounced the use of force to gain control of what it calls its "sacred" territory, has over recent years ramped up pressure on Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty, including the staging of regular military exercises near the island.
Beijing is expected to try to use its campaign to sway the public to support political parties that are more open to "reunification", or at least to building closer ties.
"They might want Taiwanese to support certain political parties who support closer economic ties with the mainland," a Taiwan security official investigating the matter told Reuters.
The official, who declined to be identified, said China could invite a range of people beyond political and business leaders in the hope of quietly promoting its political ideology.
"The exchange programmes may come in the name of sports, culture or commerce, but what we are worried about is what's being said privately," the official said.
'WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY'
The report did not single out an individuals or parties that Taiwan believes could be targeted in the campaign but Beijing has long-standing contacts with the main opposition party, the Kuomintang or KMT, which traditionally favours close ties with China, but strongly denies being pro-Beijing.
The deputy KMT chairman visited Beijing last month for meetings with top Chinese officials, a trip the KMT said would "effectively deescalate tensions" and improve communications.
Also last month, a group of Chinese officials made their first visit to Taiwan in three years to attend a cultural event in the capital, Taipei. The mayor, a senior KMT member, welcomed them.
The KMT said the government had approved the officials' visit and had been calling for efforts to "break the ice" with Beijing. The KMT also rejected any notion that the opposition was the target of China's effort.
"Why only say that this is Beijing's unilateral 'charm offensive' targeting opposition parties?," the KMT said in a statement to Reuters. "Even the United States encourages exchanges across the Taiwan Strait and peaceful dialogue."
It said the ruling party had failed to take the initiative in reducing tension and improving communication, leaving it to the KMT to do so.
Taiwan's China policy making Mainland Affairs Council declined to comment. China's Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Taiwan security agencies were closely monitoring various Chinese groups on the island, including China's quasi-government organisations responsible for issues from trade to tourism, as well as Chinese students, the report said.
A second senior Taiwan security official said the island should be "on high alert" for efforts by China to press its message on reunification.
"They are looking for a window of opportunity to bypass theTaiwan authorities," the official said.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel)