18 July 2019
Panama notified Taiwan of its decision to break diplomatic ties with the island just 40 minutes before the official announcement. Photo: Reuters
Panama notified Taiwan of its decision to break diplomatic ties with the island just 40 minutes before the official announcement. Photo: Reuters

After Panama, who’s next to ditch Taiwan?

Taiwan suffered another major diplomatic setback this week after the loss of the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa last December.

Panama, Taipei’s major ally in Latin America, suddenly announced on Tuesday that it would officially break off with Taipei and establish ties with Beijing instead.

In its statement, the Panama government said there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is “an inalienable part of Chinese territory”, and that “the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing is the only legitimate representative of the Chinese people”.

With Panama also gone, Taiwan now has formal diplomatic relations with only about 20 countries.

Taipei was caught completely off guard as it was officially notified of the decision by the Panama government just 40 minutes before the announcement.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lee Ta-wei expressed “anger and regret” over Panama’s move, assailing the Central American country for ditching Taiwan in favor of Beijing regardless of their decades-long friendship and Taipei’s generosity in offering economic aid over the years.

But Panama apparently didn’t make the decision overnight. Back in April it dropped a heavy hint that something unusual was going to happen, as it continued to postpone the appointment of a new ambassador to Taipei after the last one had served out his term.

And then, according to Wikileaks, Panama actually attempted to cut off relations with Taiwan and seek formal ties with the PRC as early as eight years ago, only to be declined by Beijing out of concern that it might ruin the ongoing honeymoon period in cross-strait relations at the time.

After Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) was elected president in 2008, Beijing called a “diplomatic truce” on Taiwan as a token of goodwill for Ma’s endorsement of the “1992 Consensus”. And throughout Ma’s term in office, the number of countries which had diplomatic relations with Taipei remained the same.

However, since independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became Taiwan’s president in May last year, cross-strait relations have continued to deteriorate, mainly because of Tsai’s refusal to endorse the 1992 Consensus, which is regarded by Beijing as the foundation of trust in its relations with the island.

Getting increasingly impatient with Tsai’s equivocal stance on the “One China” principle, Beijing began to mount a full court press on the international scene with the intention of further isolating Taipei and teaching Tsai a lesson.

Apart from punishing Taipei, there are huge political and economic incentives for Beijing to seek diplomatic relations with Panama, mainly because of the strategic importance of the Panama Canal.

Currently China is the second biggest user of the canal, and establishing formal ties with Panama will undoubtedly facilitate its investments in the country in the days ahead.

The United States has de facto control of the Panama Canal and highly regards its strategic value. But President Donald Trump seems to have no problem whatsoever with growing Chinese presence in Panama.

Panama’s move inevitably raises another question among the Taiwanese public: Which country is likely to break off relations with them next? Will it be the Vatican?

It’s an open secret that the Vatican and Beijing have been playing diplomatic footsies with each other in recent years, and many believe it is just a matter of time before the two finally establish formal diplomatic relations.

For now, the only thing that is standing in the way is probably the differences between Beijing and the Vatican over the power to appoint bishops.

Once they agree to compromise over this bone of contention, the Vatican probably will be ready to say goodbye to Taipei.

To be fair, President Tsai has exercised considerable restraint on cross-strait issues since she took office, and has refrained from directly touching on the sensitive subject of seeking to secede from the mainland in order not to provoke Beijing.

Yet despite Tsai’s restraint, it is highly unlikely that Beijing would go easy on her unless she is willing to seek dialogue with the mainland and endorse the 1992 Consensus, in which both Beijing and Taipei agree that there is only one China.

This is a core issue that Tsai can no longer dodge if she really wants to lift Taiwan out of Beijing’s all-out containment and improve its currently hostile diplomatic environment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 14

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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