Panama establishes diplomatic ties with Beijing in blow to Taiwan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 9:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 2:08pm

Panama has switched formal diplomatic ties to mainland China and broken with Taipei, dealing a major setback to Taiwan and boosting Beijing’s presence in the US’ backyard.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said in a televised address that Panama was upgrading its commercial ties with China and establishing full diplomatic links with the second most important customer using its key shipping canal.

“I’m convinced that this is the correct path for our country,” Varela said.

Panama’s government said in a statement that it recognised there was only one China – with Taiwan belonging to the Asian giant – and that it was severing ties with Taipei.

“The Panamanian government is today breaking its ‘diplomatic ties’ with Taiwan and pledges to end all relations or official contact with Taiwan,” the statement said on Monday.

A joint communiqué was signed in Beijing between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Panama counterpart Isabel Saint Malo.

“This is a historic moment. China-Panama relations have opened a new chapter,” Wang said, describing Panama’s decision as in “complete accordance” with its people’s interests and “in keeping with the times”.

In Taipei, Joseph Wu, secretary general of the presidential office, said Tuesday morning Taiwan would rethink its relations with the mainland in the wake of Panama’s decision.

Taiwan is facing even stronger diplomatic isolation as the number of countries that still maintain ties with the island has shrank to about 20, mostly smaller and poorer nations in Latin America and the Pacific.

Beijing views self-ruling Taiwan as a breakaway Chinese province and opposes any official ties between the island and other countries.

There have been reports over the years that Panama, one of Taiwan’s oldest allies, has sought to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing as mainland China increases its influence in the country.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the expanded Panama Canal last year in an effort to shore up ties with its Latin American ally.

Beijing, deeply suspicious of Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, has stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan since she took office in 2016.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen tries to shore up ties with Panama to counter Beijing’s influence in Latin America

African nations São Tomé and Príncipe and Gambia announced they would sever relations with Taiwan last year.

Beijing’s ties with Panama boost China’s presence in Central America, the United States’ backyard.

China has tried to woo the region with energy and infrastructure deals at a time when US President Donald Trump pulled his country out of a Trans-Pacific trade pact involving countries such as Chile, Mexico and Peru. Trump has also pledged to deport illegal migrants from Latin America.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Lawrence Chung