In the Northern Triangle of Central America, it is common to see expressions from Washington with regard to the internal affairs of national governments in the region.
Last week, events in a Central American country, and the responses from Washington and Beijing suggested a new dimension in the interpretation and projection of political dynamics that might focus on respect for sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs.
What transpired was interesting because a reaction from Washington to events in Central America spurred a public response from the Chinese embassy in that country.
Beijing’s representative, taking note of the political situation, declared that “the safeguarding of sovereign equality and noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries are the most important principle of the UN Charter. China always applies the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
In the view of Beijing, the people of that country have “the ability and wisdom to manage well their own internal affairs,” they said.
At least in Central America, such a clear focus on sovereignty and noninterference is a new emphasis by Beijing, in this instance made overtly in relation to the US and, implicitly, in the context of China’s political proposition in comparison with that of Taiwan.
Previous efforts by Beijing to compete with Taipei for political recognition have been focused on economics, giving promises related to trade, investment and development cooperation.
Attention has also been given to “vaccine diplomacy.”
Countries with relations with Taiwan have watched with dismay how neighboring countries have received millions of vaccine doses from China, which are not available to them as US allies that recognize Taiwan, and have also watched with dismay the lack of response from Washington, especially as the US has a significant surplus of vaccines, with which it could compensate for the disadvantage faced by a few of its allies, such as Honduras, Guatemala and Paraguay.
However, beyond the pressing matter of vaccines, it has become visible that China is advancing the issue of respect for sovereignty and noninterference, which it likely considers a more fundamental issue in the region.
Beijing’s conclusion is apparently that the importance of respect for sovereignty is basic and permanent: It will not fade away, as have previous pandemics, although often after great human suffering.
Noteworthy in the emphasis on sovereignty and noninterference is the way that China is countering in a frontal manner previous warnings from Washington.
Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo framed the choice for nonaligned countries as the difference between “the trading power that respects your sovereignty, or one that scoffs at it.”
He warned that “Beijing entwines its neighbors and others ... threatening their own sovereignty.”
China’s response can be viewed in that context. The posture Beijing’s officials took at a US-China summit in Alaska in March has now been extended to Central America, where Beijing asserts, in essence, that the risk of immediate challenges to sovereignty do not come from China, but might come from Washington, and, significantly, that Beijing might offer the missing counterweight against that risk.
In practical terms, Washington has available an effective response to China’s message, which would be for the US to assure that any democratic ally that recognizes Taiwan would be granted equal or greater respect for its sovereignty, and the principle of noninterference might be shown toward the countries that are aligned in a different manner.
It must be noted that there is a framework in place to address issues of concern within the Americas. The Inter-American Democratic Charter provides necessary guarantees and instruments that have been freely accepted by the countries that have subscribed to the framework.
Political dynamics in the region are increasingly pointing toward the lessons to be drawn from then-Panaman leader Omar Torrijos when he recovered the country’s sovereignty over the Panama Canal and adjacent territory through the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.
Torrijos, as the leader of a small and dignified nation, chose a path to strengthen new and historic friendships and alliances by seeking positive and peaceful relations with all forces in a multipolar world.
In July, the world is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Torrijos’ death. The lessons of his leadership continue to be worthy of study and recognition as the world faces and embraces new global realities.
It is obvious that the competition between superpowers in Central America is at the highest level in decades. China has put forward the issue of respect for sovereignty and noninterference as a factor in that competition. It remains to be seen how this process unfolds.
Rafael Fernando Sierra Quesada is the deputy chief of the Honduran embassy in Washington and former Honduran ambassador to Taiwan.
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