Taiwan had grown so numb watching its powerful rival China pay off its diplomatic allies to switch sides that people in Taiwan cynically bet on which country is next to go.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and condemns the idea that the self-ruled island has rights to foreign relations.
Anyone who’s allied with China can’t go and set up an embassy in Taipei. As long as Taiwan has five or 10 formal friends plus a staunch informal relationship with Washington, a lot of political scientists say, it can find someone to speak for it in the United Nations (China blocks Taiwan from joining the U.N.) P
anama’s decision Monday to break relations with Taiwan after multiple decades to sign with China started the betting again. China grabs allies when it’s trying to warn Taiwanese leaders. Now Beijing is peeved that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen won’t agree both sides belong under “one China” for the sake of dialogue.
“Panama’s move is a heavy body blow for Taiwan,” says Sean King, senior vice president of the New York political consultancy Park Strategies. “An obviously major shipping nation that uses the U.S. dollar, Panama has long been one of Taipei’s highest-profile diplomatic allies.” (The only higher profile one is the Vatican.)
The bets are on these three countries going next:
1. Nicaragua: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government gave Tsai a warmer than expected welcome in January. But he broke relations with Taiwan for China in 1985 and Tsai’s visit to the country in January was oddly hard to plan, raising suspicion that Ortega was plotting another switch. In 2013 the Nicaraguan government turned over responsibility of a 175-mile-long marine shipping canal to a Chinese businessman, the Panampost.com news website says. The $50 billion Nicaragua Interoceanic Canal, which would connect the Central American country’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts, is now either “paralyzed or nonexistent,” the website says. If China wants to revitalize the canal as part of its ever-growing Belt-and-Road initiative to spread its industry around the world, it might get Ortega’s attention again.
2. Paraguay: The only South American country that recognizes Taiwan has never broken ties since establishing them in 1957. But China started making invitations in the late 1980s and its head-hunting reached a point in 2002 where the Paraguayan government publicly reassured Taiwan it would not switch allegiance, local media say. As with other allies, Taiwan has held onto the lower middle-income country of 6.6 million people by offering aid including more than $30 million in housing project grants for housing projects and in 2009 a deferral of $400 million in loans, media reports say. The Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano called Paraguay a “key target for Beijing” back then because of shifts in the South American country’s leadership. And today’s Taiwan government says it’s no longer in the checkbook diplomacy business.
3. St. Lucia: This Caribbean island nation of 164,000 people was once a Chinese ally but signed on with Taiwan in 2007 when the two Asian rivals were still practicing checkbook diplomacy to win recognition from small countries that needed aid. In 2012, media outlets said the government of former Prime Minister Kenny Anthony wanted closer relations with China but decided to hold onto Taiwan for the sake of consistency. In 2012 China was also observing a diplomatic truce with Taiwan as Beijing and Taipei had set aside political issues then to build up trade and economic ties. The country’s historic willingness to switch, plus the effective expiration of the truce under the Tsai, would make it an easy target for China to take back again.