Taiwan leader is seeking a visit from allies in Central America

MEXICO CITY — As Taiwan’s diplomatic partners dwindle and instead turn to rival China, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen aims to cement ties with the self-governing island’s remaining allies during a trip to Central America this week.

In a speech to the leaders of Guatemala and Belize shortly before departure, Tsai described the trip as an opportunity to demonstrate Taiwan’s commitment to democratic values ​​around the world.

“External pressure will not hamper our determination to step onto the world stage. We will be calm, confident, we will not submit, but we will not provoke either,” said Tsai, who will also meet with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a stopover in the United States.

But the trip is also aimed at cementing ties in Latin America as China funnels money into the region and pressures its countries to sever ties with the self-governing democratic island.

In Guatemala and Belize, Tsai is said to bring an open checkbook. But in a region under growing Chinese influence, analysts say Taiwan may already have lost in the long run.

“These countries are symbolic. And I don’t think Taiwan wants to lose any of them,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “But if China indulges in checkbook diplomacy, I don’t think Taiwan can match and it knows it.”

The visit comes just days after Honduras became the latest country to break with Taiwan to forge ties with China.

Honduras is following in the footsteps of Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Costa Rica in leaving Taiwan. In some cases, China is said to dangle hefty investment packages and loans in return for a change of allegiance.

As the Asian superpower has sought to isolate Taiwan and expand its power on the global stage, China’s trade and investment in Latin America has skyrocketed.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the Chinese invested more than $130 billion in Latin America between 2005 and 2020. Trade between China and the region has also skyrocketed and is expected to reach more than $700 billion by 2035.

The move from Honduras came in connection with the construction of a hydroelectric dam project being built by Chinese firm SINOHYDRO with about $300 million in Chinese government funding.

It left Taiwan with no more than 13 official diplomatic partners. More than half of these are small countries in Latin America and the Caribbean: Belize, Guatemala, Paraguay, Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

At the same time, Chinese influence has increased, and backspending by the US – Taiwan’s key ally and source of defense weapons – has meant its influence in Latin America has waned.

For decades, China has claimed Taiwan as its own territory, to be seized by force if necessary, but the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly supports the current state of de facto independence.

China has put great effort into its campaign to diplomatically isolate Taiwan since Tsai’s election in 2016, and has successfully persuaded nine countries to sever ties with Taipei since her tenure.

China’s government views Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party as separatists.

Tensions have only escalated in recent months as relations between Beijing and Washington spiraled. As a result, regions like Central America have gained geopolitical importance.

“While our policies haven’t changed, Beijing’s growing coercion has — like trying to cut Taiwan’s ties with countries around the world,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech on ties with China last year.

Guatemala and Belize are among those who remain staunchly supportive of Taiwan, with the Guatemalan government reaffirming its “recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation with which democratic values ​​and mutual respect are shared” in March.

But analysts say their allegiance is also a political calculus.

Tiziano Breda, a researcher at the International Affairs Institute, said this position is likely to be exercised politically and used as a potential shield against US pressure

For example, the US government has heavily criticized the government of President Alejandro Giammattei for not doing enough to tackle corruption.

“It’s a card these countries are waiting to play,” said Breda.

Dreyer of the University of Miami said many of Taiwan’s allies would use their ties with both China and Taiwan as a “bargaining ground” to secure greater investment and financial benefits from both countries.

She said at Ing-wen’s meetings with Guatemala and Belize that the president is likely to offer investment and development projects that depend on maintaining good relations with her country.

However, Dreyer noted that given China’s power on the world stage, it is only a matter of time before the economic superpower wins Taiwan’s last diplomatic partners.

The Chinese “are not only willing to wait, they really want to wait until they think the time is right,” Dreyer said. “They want the most promising moment possible.”

Source : www.washingtontimes.com

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