Will Nicaragua be next to break ties with Taiwan?

As Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen begins four-nation visit to Central America, doubts linger on strength of relations with Managua

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 9:10am

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s mission to cement ties with Taipei’s shrinking number of allies during her trip to Central America may end in embarrassment for the self-ruled island, political pundits say.

Although officials in Taipei said Tsai’s diplomatic trip is crucial as Beijing squeezes Taiwan’s presence in international affairs, uncertainties linger as to whether Tsai can retain the backup of the four nations she will visit, particularly Nicaragua.

Tsai’s visit will take her to Honduras via the US city of Houston on Monday, Nicaragua on Tuesday, Guatemala late on Wednesday and El Salvador early on Friday, before returning to Taiwan on Saturday by way of San Francisco.

Concerns are rising in Taipei, however, that Nicaragua could be the next ally after small West African state Sao Tome and Principe to ditch Taipei for Beijing.

A day after Sao Tome and Principle broke ties with Taiwan on December 20, Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister Javier Hou said during a legislative session that another alliance, which he declined to name, could be at risk.

Although Hou said it would not affect Tsai’s visit, Taiwanese media reported that officials had difficulties sorting out details with their Nicaraguan counterparts for her trip, which fueled speculation over the strength of the bilateral ties. The itinerary released by Taiwan’s presidential office said Tsai would meet with the heads of state in three of the four host countries, but not her Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega.

Taiwan says Beijing pressure not delaying Tsai Ing-wen’s Latin America trip plans

Tsai is scheduled to attend the inauguration of Ortega on Tuesday, but there are no bilateral meetings arranged between the two. Instead, Tsai would visit Taiwanese factories and meet members of Nicaragua’s Taiwanese community before leaving the country on Wednesday morning.

Analysts said Tsai’s visit, which is aimed at consolidating ties, would be a test of the island’s influence in the region amid growing pressure from Beijing. Taiwan currently has 21 allies, but that number is widely expected to shrink further.

“No one knows for sure at present whether Nicaragua will be the next ally to switch ties to Beijing, but Managua has a track record of snubbing Taiwan and Ortega has a record of pleading allegiance to the mainland,” said Sun Yang-ming, vice-president of Taipei-based National Policy Foundation, referring to the nation’s capital and president.

Vows of steely resolve on both sides of Taiwan Strait

Ortega previously broke off relations with Taiwan in 1985. The relationship was restored by a rightwing government in 1990 and, after he returned to power in 2006, Ortega retained the status quo. He was reported to have threatened to break ties with Taipei in 2007 in order to gain financial support from former president Chen Shui-bian’s administration.

Former president Ma Ying-jeou was reported to have been forced to cancel an agreed-upon meeting with Ortega during his Central America visit in 2009, after the Nicaraguan president twice postponed the encounter.

Analysts said Beijing might want to intensify pressure on Tsai by further isolating Taiwan internationally in an attempt to force her to accept the “1992 consensus,” an understanding that contains the one-China principle that Beijing sees as a prerequisite for the two sides to continue talks and interaction.

“The mainland may pressure Taiwan’s allies to break ties with Taipei,” said Lin Chong-pin, a former vice-defence minister of Taiwan.