Sat, Jan 07, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Ominous signs ahead of Tsai’s trip

By James Baron

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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