The ouster and exile by the military of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya on Sunday created several problems for Taiwan, the least of which is the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s last-minute decision to cancel his trip there later this week.
With the international community — from the UN to the Organization of American States — condemning the coup, Taipei faces uncertainty in its relations with one of its remaining 23 diplomatic allies. Despite Ma’s assurances yesterday that ties between the two countries had not been affected — in other words, that Tegucigalpa would not switch recognition to Beijing — there is no knowing what will happen next in the unstable mood of a coup d’etat.
By virtue of their unconstitutionality, military coups abandon all pretence to legal strictures, and their architects may be amenable to other, sudden changes. Strategic alliances — especially with undemocratic states — can be formed, especially if the coup results in diplomatic isolation, which cannot be ruled out in this case.
But Honduras is not a very attractive prize for China. It has very little to offer in terms of natural resources — one of Beijing’s major considerations in developing ties with countries.
Furthermore, Beijing and Taipei have struck a sort of truce in that they will not attempt to steal each other’s allies; doing so now could threaten cross-strait rapprochement, which is far more valuable to Beijing than poor Honduras. But as the Chinese Foreign Ministry has yet to make a statement on the developments, the jury is still out.
The problem of dealing with an illegitimate regime presents another challenge. If Zelaya — who in September 2007 “angered” Beijing by calling Taiwan an independent sovereign state — is not allowed to return from exile, will Taipei risk angering Tegucigalpa in placing pressure on it to restore democracy, or will it allow fear of losing a diplomatic ally to mute its response to what should be condemned in no uncertain terms?
As a beacon of democracy — an image that, at least in name, Ma has encouraged — Taiwan can hardly afford to remain silent when democracy is shoved aside by an act that even by Central American standards has become rare in recent years. So far, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Office have said little other than to confirm Ma’s change of itinerary and that they are monitoring the situation.
While the dust settles, Taipei will have to choose between the cold interests of diplomatic relations and its core values; between muting its criticism of Acting President Roberto Micheletti and the forces that installed him or joining the US and several other countries in calling for Zelaya to be reinstated.
The decision will mostly hinge on these two poles. Despite a free-trade agreement between Taiwan and Honduras that came into force a year ago, bilateral trade between the two countries is hardly substantial — US$66 million in 2007, according to the Ministry of Finance’s Directorate General of Customs.
At a time when Taiwan watchers fret about the state of Taiwan’s democracy, Taipei should not shirk its responsibilities as a member of the community of democracies. Taiwan must join the chorus of Tegucigalpa critics — even if this risks endangering diplomatic relations.
Otherwise, Taipei will be no better than Beijing in this respect: remaining aloof from the political decay within allies, however undemocratic and repressive their governments may be.