Hours after Sao Tome and Principe severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan on Dec. 21, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Javier Hou (侯清山) addressed lawmakers’ concerns of further defections to Beijing. Speaking to the Foreign and National Defense Committee, Hou admitted that officials were on alert with regard to an unspecified ally.
Since June, when two senior Vatican officials visited Beijing, ostensibly to discuss re-establishing ties that were ruptured half a century ago, rumors of a potential rift with the Holy See have been rife. These fears were compounded by a Chinese-language report on Radio France Internationale’s Web site, claiming a deal on the appointment of bishops was in the offing.
The piece was dismissed as “reheated leftovers” by Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維). However, while the Vatican stopped short of endorsing the state-sanctioned Ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives held in Beijing from Dec. 28 to Dec. 30, it broke with its custom of forbidding attendance. Still, as shaky as the relationship seems, it is unlikely to collapse overnight. It is more likely, as has been observed by analysts such as Alan Romberg, East Asia program director at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, that any accommodation between this odd couple will emerge in phases. This would give Taiwan a grace period to brace for the blow.
More immediate is the threat of a Central American ally jumping ship. Former American Institute in Taiwan director Douglas Paal is one of several analysts to have raised this specter. As President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) embarks on a nine-day tour of the nation’s allies in the region, this possibility looms large.
There have long been rumblings in the region, with Honduras withdrawing its ambassador Mario Fortin in 2013 for unspecified reasons and failing to fill the post for 18 months. Though his replacement, Rafael Sierra, insists ties remain firm, he has admitted that China is an economic “monster” that cannot be ignored.
Nicaragua is perhaps the flakiest of all of Taiwan’s friends, and it is here that things appear particularly ominous. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is set to commence a third consecutive term on Tuesday, and Tsai is scheduled to attend his inauguration. The problem is, while Tsai’s itinerary for the rest of the tour is locked down, the details for Nicaragua remain vague.
First, there were reports that Taiwanese diplomats in Managua were “having difficulty” contacting Nicaraguan officials to organize the details. Then came the release of the official itinerary on Wednesday, on which a meeting with Ortega was conspicuously absent. Officials insisted that a tete-a-tete would take place behind closed doors, but, following the cancelation of bilateral talks with other heads of state, the only firm arrangements on the schedule are visits to Taiwanese factories.
Ortega is at best indifferent to Taiwan, at worse contemptuous. Under former president Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) administration, Taipei funded Anastasio Somoza, the dictator that Ortega’s Sandinistas overthrew. As a sidebar to the Iran-Contra affair, Chiang also facilitated clandestine funding to the militias who opposed Ortega’s government.
The uncertainty surrounding Tsai’s situation has precedents. In 2007, then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) attended the inauguration for Ortega’s second stint as president. Yet, weeks before the big day, Commandante Daniel was hinting at rapprochement with Beijing. Seven months later, Chen returned to Managua for another meeting with Ortega, at which he fawningly referred to the Sandinista leader as a “brother” and a fellow revolutionary. Laying it on thick, Chen said Ortega would deserve a Nobel Peace Prize if he could achieve dual recognition of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. A classified cable from then-US ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli, released by WikiLeaks, quoted then deputy chief of the Taiwanese mission, Ishmael Wang, as saying Chen even dressed casually “to appeal more to Sandinista sensibilities.”
If Chen’s obsequiousness was unedifying, the treatment of his successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), was downright disrespectful. In June 2009, Ortega twice postponed a meeting with Ma in San Salvador, causing the latter to scrap it altogether.
The following month in Managua, Ortega skipped a banquet at which he was supposed to host his Taiwanese counterpart. When he deigned to see Ma, Ortega announced that the talks would be broadcast live on state television. The 80-minute discussion included requests for assistance with irrigation and construction projects. In an uncharacteristic understatement, Taiwanese media reported Ma’s “surprise” at the format.
There is also the murky issue of the Nicaragua Canal, a project that has become a lumbering white elephant. Although there is no official Chinese involvement, the scheme was borne of a visit to Beijing by Ortega’s son, Laureano, who was said to have met top Chinese Communist Party officials.
Whatever Ortega’s feelings toward Taiwan, the stakes are higher this time. Should Managua split with Tsai, who is poised to attend the inauguration, it would be a stinging slap in the face. Even among the embarrassments of the Chen era, the only comparable incident was Costa Rica’s failure to vote in favor of Taiwan at the UN, days before breaking ties in 2007.
When Sao Tome and Principe ended relations with Taipei, many observers felt the move was timed to coincided with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ announcements about the tour. Tsai’s phone call with US president-elect Donald Trump and speculation over a possible rendezvous between the pair during her US stopover have enraged Beijing. What better retribution than to exact a humiliating, high-profile snatch-and-grab operation with Taiwan at its most vulnerable?
Romberg sees this as unlikely.
“I would be surprised if any of Taipei’s Latin American partners were to pull the plug while President Tsai is on her trip,” he said. “I suppose it is not impossible, but from that partner’s point of view, separation would likely be more costly than it counted on. The reputational costs would be high, making them appear to be ‘buyable’ if the price is right.”
This has not proved a barrier in the past. Even if Tsai comes through the trip unscathed, the fact that this scenario is imaginable demonstrates just how dicey Taiwan’s diplomacy has become.
James Baron is a Taipei-based freelance writer and journalist.
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