President Tsai Ing-wen has been in Central America since last week, to sustain Taiwan’s relationships amid increasing pressure from China. President Tsai Ing-wen said she aims to improve Taiwan’s foreign relations based on ‘steadfast diplomacy’ and explore trade opportunities with allies.
Including Vatican, Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 20 nations, the largest cohort is in Latin America and the Caribbean. Maintaining the few formal relationships Taiwan has is important for its leaders.
Supported with embassies, trade agreements and foreign aid, these relationships strengthen Taiwan’s effective sovereignty.
Taipei Times wrote, Tsai diplomatic visits, attending the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, touring Guatemala’s colonial city of Antigua and visiting the shrine of Honduras’ patron saint are to strengthen the relationships.
Under the one China policy, China has tried for years to isolate Taiwan. Beijing demands the nations it has diplomatic relations abandon their recognition of Taiwan.
Since the US set up a formal ties with China in 1979 most of the world has also followed, but the countries of the Central America region except Costa Rica still recognize Taiwan.
In June 2016, Tsai also has visited Panama and then Paraguay, the only South American country that maintains relations with Taiwan.
One peculiar edge of such Central American relationships for Tsai is that they allow her to make transit stops in the US admitting Taiwan’s presence even if she cannot participate in formal diplomatic meetings.
Also on her way to Panama last summer, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio in Miami. Recently in Texas, she met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz on her way to Honduras.
For years China had boiled Taiwan’s friendships, but it stopped while Ms Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, who advocated closer ties to China, was in office.
Tsai’s said she wished to avoid confrontation in her year-end news conference, however, China was resentful of her congratulatory telephone call in December to US president-elect Donald Trump after his victory at the polls.
Taipei Times reported, Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, wrote in an e-mail: “It would not be surprising to see increasing efforts from Beijing (and concomitant response from Taiwan) to lure allies away,” in light of the call.
“China can turn the screw whenever it wants,” said Assistant Professor Colin Alexander, an expert on political communications at Nottingham Trent University, who wrote a book about the relationship between Taiwan and Central America.
Other Central American nations have found that they can attract Chinese investment without normalizing diplomatic relations. They maintain informal business contacts.
“It’s all a kind of smoke and mirrors,” Prof Alexander said. “The Central American republics have it pretty good. Taiwan treats them like a princess, and China is engaged in smart power and flexible diplomacy where it’s still willing to invest.”
China’s most large-scale investment in the region is a Chinese tycoon’s US$50 billion plan to build a canal across Nicaragua, an nontransparent project with unclear funding that stalled before work had begun. In Honduras, a Chinese company is building a Patuca River dam with funding from Chinese banks.
“As long as there is a fluid relationship between Taiwan and China, it’s a game they can continue to play,” said Enrique Dussel Peters, a China expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
“There have been discussions in each of these countries about whether it makes sense to continue the relationship with Taiwan,” Dussel said.
As for Singapore, its chances of getting its nine Terrex infantry carrier vehicles that were seized in Hong Kong become smaller and smaller with Taiwan’s continued actions to irk China with its foreign diplomacy.