Panama wished to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008, but decided against it partly because of signals from Beijing about its reluctance to undermine cross-strait relations, a diplomatic cable recently released by WikiLeaks shows.
The confidential diplomatic cable on Panama’s decision to maintain its relations with Taiwan was sent to the US Department of State, the US Department of Defense, the US National Security Council and the CIA from the US embassy in Panama City on Feb. 23 last year.
The cable showed that another factor that helped Taiwan maintain diplomatic relations with Panama was donations offered by Ma in January last year to the administration of Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who had publicly talked about allying with China during his election campaign in 2009.
Then-US ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson said in the cable that the Panamanian government had renewed its commitment to Taiwan despite public statements by Martinelli in 2009 that the country would opt for formal diplomatic ties with the -People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Martinelli, who was inaugurated as president on July 1, 2009, has attempted to follow through with his plan to recognize the PRC, but was told to stop by Beijing, Stephenson said.
“Martinelli may have had in mind the type of cooperation that Costa Rica has been enjoying with the PRC since establishing formal ties in 2007,” the cable said.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias on Feb. 1 informed a Colombian diplomat that Martinelli had told him that Panama wanted to follow Costa Rica’s lead, but that the Chinese had asked him to “remain calm” and that for the time being the PRC was not interested in furthering its diplomatic ties, the cable said.
Arias announced in June 2007 that his country would cut ties with Taiwan to recognize China.
The cable said Panamanian Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Varela told Stephenson on Feb. 18 last year he had been told by his Chinese counterpart during a visit to Asia the previous month that because of diplomatic overtures under way between Beijing and Taipei, it was not the right time for Panama to recognize the PRC.
Chinese diplomats relayed to political officers in Costa Rica that the PRC was concerned that diplomatic recognition from other Latin American countries might damage their recently improved relations with Taiwan, the cable showed.
Stephenson also attributed the continuity of relations between the Taiwan and Panama to donations offered by Taiwan to the Martinelli administration.
On Jan. 6 last year, Varela agreed to a “five-year cooperation” plan that included the donation of US$25 million for construction of a hospital on the outskirts of Panama City in Chilibre-Las Cumbres, and a US$22 million executive business jet.
The cable said Varela’s confirmation that ties with Taiwan would continue came shortly after Taiwan gave the Panamanian government an Embraer Legacy 600 executive business jet as a gift in December 2009.
The Taiwanese government has used financial incentives to sweeten its relationship with Panama. Political science professor Miguel Antonio Bernal estimated aid to be at US$125 million a year during the previous administration of Panamanian president Martin Torrijos, the cable said.