Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic allies are developing increasingly tight economic ties with China, in a trend that could increase Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation if the current detente between Beijing and Taipei fails.
The world’s second-largest economy is gaining soft power with a series of investment commitments in Central America, home to the last significant bloc of countries that still maintain formal ties with Taiwan.
However, instead of jumping on the chance to make new allies, China is stalling on Central American requests to establish diplomatic relations. The goal is to avoid galling Taiwanese voters, as Beijing is also courting President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.
That leaves China with a trump card if cross-strait relations turn cooler under future administrations. It could then pull the diplomatic rug out from under Taiwan by engineering a mass defection of its remaining friends, analysts say.
“The economics are hot although the politics are still cold,” said Zhang Zhexin, who studies Taiwan policy at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
He estimates China has rebuffed at least five countries’ requests to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
“If it weren’t for the desire to support Ma, we would have let them switch already. But now we are not as much in a rush as before,” he said.
Costa Rica was the most recent nation to recognize Beijing in 2007, leaving Taiwan with 23 allies ranging in size from Paraguay to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru.
A US State Department cable released by Wikileaks indicates that Panama sought to recognize Beijing in 2009, but was rebuffed.
“It doesn’t make any sense anymore economically speaking to be affiliated with Taiwan,” said Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin America program at the Interamerican Dialogue.
Beijing became more conciliatory toward Ma’s ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under China’s previous president, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), and tried to woo Taiwan’s people with carrots rather than sticks.
Taiwan and China have signed a series of landmark trade and economic deals since the China-friendly Ma was elected in 2008, and the two sides have since observed an unofficial truce in the competition to lure diplomatic recognition with expensive investment deals.
Nonetheless, Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province, to be united with force if necessary.
“The PRC now wants to be in a position without violating the truce of effectively being able to say ... ‘we are essentially in a position where we can take away the last remaining pieces of your diplomatic legitimacy,’” said Evan Ellis, assistant professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington.
A number of Central American “dream” projects might have strategic interest for China as it seeks cheaper shipping routes for gas, ore and soybeans from the Caribbean or the Atlantic ports. However, the greater allure seems to be for Central American politicians, who envision Chinese funding for their grand plans.
Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, which has ties with Taiwan, has granted a 50-year concession to a Chinese telecoms businessman with no experience in infrastructure projects, to build a canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean that would challenge the Panama Canal’s dominance. The price tag for this project, long desired by Nicaragua, is about US$40 billion.