Taiwan’s critical battle to keep its diplomatic allies from switching sides
Island’s remaining friends under constant pressure as Beijing engages in broad offensive to put the squeeze on its international space
In the diplomatic battle between Beijing and Taipei, Honduras is one of Taiwan’s last remaining friends.
The central American country is one of Taiwan’s 18 diplomatic allies, but after more than five decades of close relations, it faces constant daily pressure to recognise Beijing as its ally instead.
“We have a lot of pressure, definitely,” Rafael Sierra, its ambassador to Taiwan, said from the Honduran embassy in Taipei. “We have a lot of pressure every day ... there are people talking to the president [Juan Orlando Hernandez] every day, saying let’s go to China, let’s go to China, let’s go to China.”
The pressure is both internal and external – as Beijing offers economic sweeteners in a broader diplomatic offensive to steal Taiwan’s remaining allies, and from domestic political pressure to work with the world’s second largest economy rather than the self-ruled island of Taiwan. It highlights the uphill battle that Taiwan faces after losing two more allies in May – Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic – with mostly smaller nations in Latin America and the Pacific as its remaining allies.
“I told Taiwan, you need to be smart; the Chinese government is playing [at a] high level, and you are playing too nice,” Sierra said. “It’s a very complicated political situation between the two countries, which affects us also. There’s like a fight to get all the countries away from Taiwan.
“[Hernández] expects more from Taiwan, but at the end, we kind of take advantage of the situation to get more things, to put more pressure.”
For now at least, Honduras does not expect any changes to its relationship with Taiwan. The two have cooperative agreements in the pipeline, such as bringing Honduran avocados to the Taiwanese market in the coming months. Sierra has urged for stronger people-to-people exchanges, more Taiwanese companies to work in Honduras, and more exchanges of Taiwan’s superior technological know-how.
But this does not rule out changes in the future. Sierra noted that if Honduras does make the switch, its neighbours and fellow Taiwan allies Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador would likely follow.
Besides Honduras, analysts say other major countries such as Haiti, Paraguay and Eswatini – Taiwan’s lone ally in Africa, recently renamed from Swaziland – are also at risk of dropping formal ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing. Another vulnerable state is the Vatican, which is currently negotiating an agreement with the mainland Chinese government.
Beijing believes it is the sole legitimate government of China, and has repeatedly said it would use all means – including force – to keep control of Taiwan, which it sees as a renegade province. Taiwan on the other hand has flourished for decades as a democratic nation with its own government and elections, despite the ramping up of pressure from its powerful neighbour.
That has escalated considerably under Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, with the loss of four diplomatic allies in just the past two years and cross-strait relations at a standstill. Beijing froze official exchanges with Taipei because Tsai refused to accept the 1992 consensus, which it says is the basis for dialogue across the Taiwan Strait.
The US has also been watching warily as Beijing tries to poach Taiwan’s allies, seeking to help the Taiwanese position by speaking out for them in the international arena. Taiwan has significant strategic importance for the US, particularly as Washington and Beijing tussle over trade and North Korea.
But analysts describe the US global leadership position as one that is on the decline, evidenced by the last-minute notification by Panama and the Dominican Republic to the US that they were cutting ties with Taiwan, according to Sierra.
Politicians with the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) argue that losing diplomatic allies is not the end-all of Taiwan’s foreign policy.
“As China works to reduce all of our allies, it will hurt,” Wang Ting-yu, a DPP lawmaker, said. “But on foreign affairs, you cannot completely erase Taiwan. Even if you take away all of our allies so that the number is zero, Taiwan will still be here, and the Taiwanese people will not view Beijing’s intentions kindly.”
Another DPP legislator, Lo Chih-cheng, said the current government would focus on retaining its remaining allies.
“We have fewer allies, so theoretically, our resources will be larger because we only need to devote them to those allies,” he said. “China is putting all its efforts into this diplomatic offensive ... so we have to do whatever we can to keep those allies.”
But the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party has accused Tsai of forcing Taiwan into a position where it needs to engage in “dollar diplomacy” with Beijing so that its diplomatic ally count will not continue to drop.
KMT lawmaker Wang Yu-min cited the US$150 million loan Taiwan recently agreed to give its Caribbean ally Haiti for infrastructure development as an example.
“China is using these diplomatic allies to send a warning to the DPP, because if you lose your allies, it is embarrassing for Taiwan as a country,” she said. “It is deeply damaging to the dignity of the president, so it is one of the ways to exact pressure on Tsai.
“When cross-strait relations were better, China would not try to steal our allies – but now Tsai has got to a point where if our allies ask for something, she is forced to give it to them to keep our number where it is.”
But one of the island’s smaller allies, the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, said it was not facing much pressure to switch over to Beijing. The Marshall Islands previously had diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the formal name for the Beijing government, but switched over to the Republic of China, the official name for the Taiwan, in November 1998.
“We don’t get much pressure from the other China,” Anjanette Kattil, charge d’affairs for the Marshall Islands, said. “Since we left [our formal diplomatic relationship with Beijing] they’ve basically left us alone.
“Our engagements have been limited to climate change, and the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change].”
She said the Marshall Islands was preparing for the expiry of millions of dollars in economic aid from the United States in 2023, and there was a chance it may need to “turn to our friends for more assistance”, including Taiwan. Major areas of cooperation between the nations include exchanges in education, health, solar, as well as trade in industries such as fishing, coconuts and handicrafts – in a relationship underpinned by shared values in democracy and human rights, Kattil said.
“It’s a natural marriage of sorts,” she said. “The relations between our countries continue to grow as the years go on ... At one time, we were under the trusteeship of the US, and we fought long and hard also for our independence, so naturally we connect with Taiwan in that area, where we understand the importance of sovereignty.”
For Taiwan now, it is important not to let its current diplomatic situation deteriorate, according to Liu Fu-kuo, a specialist in US Asia strategy and foreign policy at the Institute of International Relations, which carries out research for the Taiwanese government.
“If Beijing wants Taiwan to feel worse, it could happen very quickly,” he said. “In the worst-case scenario, if our ally count drops to single digits, it would cause a confidence crisis internally in Taiwan, where we would ask ourselves even if we are a country ... The important thing to maintain our existing diplomatic allies is to maintain the status quo of cross-strait relations, or else the rest of our allies will quickly disappear.”