Sun, Jan 15, 2017 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE: President works to keep Central American friends

NY Times News Service, MEXICO CITY

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been in Central America this week, attending the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, touring Guatemala’s colonial city of Antigua and visiting the shrine of Honduras’ patron saint.

From a global perspective, it is the sort of tour that looks like a diplomatic asterisk. However, there is nothing trivial about it for Tsai, who is in Central America to shore up relationships amid increasing pressure from China.

Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 20 nations, along with the Vatican; the largest cluster of those is in Latin America and the Caribbean. These relationships, complete with embassies, trade agreements and foreign aid, strengthen Taiwan’s effective sovereignty.

Maintaining the few formal relationships Taiwan has is an important source of domestic legitimacy for its leaders.

If Taiwan is “not recognized by any country in the world — what good are you?” said Richard Bush, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

China has worked for decades to isolate Taiwan.

Under the “one China” policy, Beijing demands that nations it has diplomatic relations drop their recognition of Taiwan. Since the US established formal ties with China in 1979, most of the world has followed suit.

Central America is an outlier. In a quirk of diplomacy, all the countries of the region except Costa Rica still recognize Taiwan.

China poached Taiwan’s friendships for years, but it paused during the tenure of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who advocated closer ties with China, was in office. New leaders in Panama, Paraguay and El Salvador all explored a switch, but China held them at bay.

“China can turn the screw whenever it wants,” said Colin Alexander, an assistant professor of political communications at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University, who wrote a book about the relationship between Taiwan and Central America.

In Tsai’s year-end news conference, she said she wished to avoid confrontation.

However, China responded bitterly to her congratulatory telephone call to US president-elect Donald Trump last month after his victory at the polls.

Afterward, Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, broke relations with Taiwan.

“One can see the Sao Tome switch as a signal from Beijing that ‘we have leverage,’” Bush said.

In light of the call, “it would not be surprising to see increasing efforts from Beijing (and concomitant response from Taiwan) to lure allies away,” Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, wrote in an e-mail.

In June, Tsai visited Panama and then Paraguay, the only South American country that maintains relations with Taiwan, and the trip this week to four Central American allies is intended to keep them in the fold.

“The best outcome” of the trip “is that nothing happens,” Bush said.

One curious advantage of the Central American relationships for Tsai is that they allow her to make transit stops in the US asserting Taiwan’s presence even if she cannot participate in formal diplomatic meetings. On her way to Panama last summer, Tsai met with Senator Marco Rubio in Miami. Recently in Texas, she met with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz on her way to Honduras.

Historically, Central American nations, like others with formal ties to Taiwan, have found the arrangement favorable because Taiwan spent heavily to maintain them. However, the money has sometimes ended up in the wrong hands.

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