In the world of Western political science, the subject of Sino-Latin American relations is under-researched, with Taiwan-Latin America relations being even more so.
Few academics have published on the political economy of the Taiwan-Latin American relationship and the impact of this relationship on international security.
Considering recent visits by Guatemalan and Honduran leaders to Taiwan, it is worthwhile for academics and policymakers — in Taiwan and the West — to further research this topic.
National security and economic development in Central and South American countries have historically benefited from maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with Taiwan.
Taipei’s diplomatic strategy toward Latin America not only consists of economic assistance, trade relations and loans, but also Taiwan’s presence in relevant technical missions to enhance medical, agricultural, transportation and other related infrastructures.
However, Taipei faces daunting diplomatic challenges as China continues to suppress Taiwan, limiting its ability to engage in traditional modes of international diplomacy.
Over the past five years, Panama, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China instead.
Today, Taiwan has only eight allies in the Latin American and Caribbean region: Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Belize, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
China has invested in various projects related to energy, infrastructure and space in Latin America since 2000. These investments are part of China’s official “Going Global” strategy, which has attracted more countries in the region to China.
Receiving greater economic support in the form of foreign direct investments, loans and trade, these Latin American countries broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and officially supported Beijing’s “one China” principle.
For instance, at this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez announced his country’s decision to support China’s Belt and Road Initiative and join the 19 other Latin American countries participating in the scheme.
In addition to China’s economic assistance to Latin America, Beijing has established Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese to Latin American people, host Chinese cultural events and encourage Latin American students to study abroad in China.
To better understand the allure of Chinese investment in the eyes of Latin American heads of state, I asked Bolivian President Luis Arce the following question during Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum on Sept. 24 last year: “How do you believe your country’s cooperation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative will benefit your efforts to create an ‘economy of Mother Earth,’ as you put it, and find alternative methods to combat climate change?”
While he did not directly address Sino-Bolivian relations vis-a-vis the initiative, Arce did emphasize his role at international economic forums as an ardent advocate for the transfer of technology from more affluent countries, such as China, to Bolivia and the developing world on agreeable terms.
This would mean that contracts for development must be implemented within the country, with support from Bolivian labor.
He highlighted the international community’s past failures to promote environmentally sustainable development, and called for future international cooperation and economic relations that are “friendly to Mother Earth.”
Latin American governments supporting China’s international initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and welcoming Chinese economic investments is one thing. The Latin American people acting in kind is another.
Public opinion surveys gathered by the non-profit organization Latinobarometro since 2001 show that support for China wavers across Latin American countries.
For example, support for the Chinese government in Argentina and Brazil fluctuated from 2001 to 2010, and declined from 2010 to 2016. In Brazil, although there was a significant increase in support from 2001 to 2004, public opinion began to tumble in 2010.
This shows that not all Latin American people have a positive view of China.
Unfortunately, the Latinobarometro surveys do not gauge Latin American public opinion toward Taiwan.
Taiwan might not have the same economic resources as China, but this does not mean that there are no other ways for it to strengthen relations with its Latin American allies, or even restore diplomatic relations with its former diplomatic allies.
While strong economic ties are still important, Taiwan can focus on Latin American public opinion by means of enhanced soft power, particularly people-to-people exchanges.
Keeping Arce’s words in mind, Taiwan can leverage its unique geoeconomic position, propped up by companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co and ProLogium Technology, as it seeks to strengthen its ties with Latin America and the Caribbean.
Kevin Covarrubias is an alumnus of the US Department of State’s 2022 Critical Language Scholarship Program at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. He recently graduated from Columbia University with a master of arts in political science and is an incoming graduate student at National Tsing Hua University’s Taipei School of Economics and Political Science. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the stances of the US Department of State.
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