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Taiwan Works to Keep Its Central America Friends (Among Its Few)

In a pointed message this week, China sent its sole aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, and Ms. Tsai’s government responded by scrambling fighter jets over the waterway.

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 C. 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 countries with which it has diplomatic relations drop their recognition of Taiwan. Since the United States 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 continue to recognize Taiwan.

China poached Taiwan’s friendships for years, but it stopped doing so while Ms. Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who advocated closer ties to 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 Nottingham Trent University who wrote a book about the relationship between Taiwan and Central America.

After the election last January of Ms. Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally favored independence, China increased pressure on Taiwan, a democracy in which a majority do not want to be part of China. In her year-end news conference, Ms. Tsai said she wished to avoid confrontation.

But China responded bitterly to her phone call to Mr. Trump. Soon afterward, Saõ Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, broke relations with Taiwan. “One can see the Saõ Tomé switch as a signal from Beijing that ‘we have leverage,’” Mr. Bush said.


Supporters waiting for President Tsai during her visit to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. In a quirk of diplomacy, all of the countries of Central America except Costa Rica recognize Taiwan. Credit Inti Ocon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In light of the Trump 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 email.

Since taking office in May, Ms. Tsai has been careful to cultivate those allies. In June, she 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,” Mr. Bush said.

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

Historically, the Central American countries, like others with formal ties to Taiwan, have found the arrangement favorable because Taiwan spent heavily to maintain them. But the money has sometimes ended up in the wrong hands. “Until the late 1990s, this was all about state bribery,” Mr. Alexander said.

Former President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala admitted in United States Federal Court in 2014 that he had received $ 2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan between 1999 and 2002 — ostensibly intended to buy books for school libraries — in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

Before his death last year, Francisco Flores, a former president of El Salvador, was charged with channeling $ 10 million in donations from Taiwan for victims of a 2001 earthquake to his political party. An additional $ 5 million in donations also disappeared.

There is a darker side to the relationships, too, going back to the Cold War. In the 1970s, Taiwan trained Guatemalan and Salvadoran military officers involved in the human rights violations of the countries’ brutal civil wars, including Roberto D’Aubuisson, the reputed leader of El Salvador’s death squads.

Taiwan has since ended its “checkbook diplomacy,” in a tacit acknowledgment that it could never outspend China. That has been clear in the Caribbean, where China has invested in expensive projects, sometimes in exchange for switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan.

Indeed, the other Central American countries have found that they can attract Chinese investment without normalizing diplomatic relations. They maintain informal business contacts.

“It’s all a kind of smoke and mirrors,” Mr. Alexander said. “The Central American republics have it pretty good. Taiwan treats them like a princess, and China is engaged in smart power and flexible diplomacy where it’s still willing to invest.”

China’s most grandiose investment in the region is a Chinese tycoon’s $ 50 billion plan to build a canal across Nicaragua, an opaque project with uncertain funding that stalled before any work had begun. In Honduras, a Chinese company, Sinohydro, is building a dam on the Patuca River with funding from Chinese banks.

“As long as there is a fluid relationship between Taiwan and China, it’s a game they can continue to play,” said Enrique Dussel Peters, a China expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

But turbulence in that relationship could change the dynamic.

“There have been discussions in each of these countries about whether it makes sense to continue the relationship with Taiwan,” Mr. Dussel said.

Source: NYT > World

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