Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen heads to Latin America to shore up diplomatic ties
Since Tsai took office in 2016, the number of the island’s diplomatic allies has dropped from 22 to 18
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will head to Paraguay and Belize – two of the island’s remaining 18 formal allies – on Sunday, in her fifth state visit, described by her government as a “Journey of Joint Celebration”, but seen by analysts as cementing ties in the face of a growing diplomatic squeeze by Beijing.
Tsai will lead a high-profile delegation made up of senior security and foreign affairs officials, cabinet-level ministers, deputy ministers, legislators and business leaders, in her nine-day, eight-night trip that will end on August 20, according to the Presidential Office.
“They will make transit stops in Los Angeles and Houston, respectively in the US on the outbound and return legs of the trip,” it said in a press statement.
Identifying her Latin American trip as a “Journey of Joint Celebration”, the Presidential Office said Tsai will attend the inauguration ceremonies for Paraguayan president-elect Mario Abdo Benítez on August 15 before visiting Belize from August 16 to 18.
According to Taiwanese media, the visit is expected to include objectives such as enhancing mutual understanding and making further progress on developing and implementing joint initiatives in the areas of agriculture, education, information and communication technology, medical care and vocational training.
Analysts say there is growing public concern in Taiwan over its loss of formal allies in the face of diplomatic pressure from Beijing.
Taiwan maintained diplomatic ties with 30 countries when Lee Teng-hui was first directly elected as the island’s leader in 1996. When Ma Ying-jeou stepped down as president in May 2016, Taiwan had kept 22 allies, but since Tsai took office, the number of the island’s allies has dropped to 18.
Of the remaining allies, 10 are in Latin America, but China’s development banks had lent US$150 billion to the region as of end of 2017, prompting concerns that more countries will make the switch to Beijing. President Xi Jinping is likely to expand his contacts with Latin American leaders during the G20 summit in Argentina in November.
Both Paraguay, which established diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1957, and Belize whose ties with Taipei dated back to 1989, have faced strong economic lobbying from Beijing. Paraguay’s president-elect Abdo has hoped to sign a trade deal with Beijing and open a trade and investment office in China, while news reports said Beijing has tried the hard-sell approach, offering the Belize government financial aid and infrastructure projects, only to be rejected – so far.
The pressure has increased since Tsai became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. This led to Beijing suspending communication and exchanges with Taiwan, increasing military intimidation against the island and stepping up efforts to isolate it internationally.
Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province subject to eventual reunification, if necessary by force. It has warned other countries against forging ties with Taiwan and stepped up economic and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan’s allies. Since late 2016 Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso, have switched recognition to Beijing.
Analysts said Tsai’s visit to the Latin American nations ahead of Xi is important as it could help stave off Chinese efforts to lure more allies away from Taiwan.
“Given that Paraguay is situated next to Argentina, a state visit by the president should help cement bilateral ties and stave off a possible switch,” said Yen Chen-shen, a researcher with the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Institute director Arthur Ding said the government should take note of Beijing’s attempts to use separate regional forums with African and Latin American nations to increasing its diplomatic lobbying.
Beijing has urged Washington to block Tsai’s stopovers in Los Angeles and Houston, saying it was opposed to transit arrangements in the US or any other countries which have diplomatic ties with China.