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Taiwan

China’s new alliance stirs US worries over possible ‘military base’ in El Salvador

US ambassador had warned about Beijing’s intentions at La Union port before the Central American nation made a diplomatic switch from Taipei

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 3:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 9:35am

El Salvador might be a small nation, but the United States is worried it has something more to offer mainland China than diplomatic recognition: a port that could be used for military purposes.

The Central American country officially cut ties with Taipei and established a formal alliance with Beijing on Tuesday, leaving Taiwan with just 17 nations that officially recognise its status.

While Taipei has accused Beijing of luring its allies away with generous aid offers, Washington sees the latest switch as not just a case of piling more pressure on the self-ruled island, but a move to shore up mainland China’s security and strategic planning in the region.

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Jean Manes, the US ambassador to El Salvador, tweeted on Tuesday that the United States was concerned about the Central American nation’s decision to break ties with Taiwan.

“Without a doubt, this will impact our relationship with the government. We continue supporting the Salvadoran people,” she said.

Last month, Manes had warned about China’s intentions to turn the La Union commercial port in El Salvador’s east into a “military base”, according to US-based MintPress News.

“It is a strategic matter, and we all need to keep our eyes open to what is happening,” she said.

Facing the Pacific Ocean, El Salvador has an area half the size of Taiwan and is the smallest country in Central America. Its economy relies on exports of coffee, sugar, textiles and clothing, and the assembly of intermediate goods, and a third of its population of 6.5 million lives below the poverty line.

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The shipping port of La Union has remained largely deserted since it was completed in 2008 because its lack of maritime traffic has made it difficult to find investors.

Nelson Vanegas, president of the Autonomous Executive Port Commission in El Salvador, said in July that there were at least three companies – from Asia, Europe and America – interested in operating the port.

A new tendering process to find an operator is expected to begin next month.

On Tuesday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taipei had rejected El Salvador’s request for harbour development funding, without naming La Union, over concerns that the site was unsustainable.

But last month, El Salvador Economy Minister Luz Estrella Rodriguez said Beijing was interested in reviving the port, in addition to investing in other areas of the country.

She said Chinese companies such as state-owned Citic Group had been meeting with Salvadoran officials for several years about business opportunities not just at the port, but at the country’s international airport and its railways.

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“It is perfectly natural that China would be interested in having a port in El Salvador – it’s located at the centre of Central America, acting as a transport and trade hub linking North and South America,” said Xu Shicheng, a research fellow with the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“The US likes to say that it would be of military use just because it has a huge military presence in the region, but in fact, China has no military presence in the region,” Xu said.

China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year, and is possibly developing one in Gwadar Port in Pakistan, but observers said it was unlikely it would be planning to build a military port in El Salvador.

Collin Koh, a naval affairs expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said it would be far-fetched to say Beijing saw ports as “potential bases”, but it was clear that it was seeking to acquire or help develop overseas ports in strategic locations that could serve its long-term interests.

“To build a base in this region may run the risk of provoking a stronger US response, even as we can still entertain the idea of the occasional access to port facilities by the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” Koh said.

Taiwan’s critical battle to keep its diplomatic allies from switching sides

But Charles Morrison, a US-Asia security affairs expert at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, doubted whether either Taipei or Beijing had a deep interest in El Salvador apart from the symbolic meaning of the diplomatic switch and its acceptance of the one-China policy.

“While Taiwan fights to keep its relationships, it is not willing to pay any price,” he said, referring to Taipei rejecting El Salvador’s funding request.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province subject to eventual reunification, by force if necessary. It has stepped up pressure against the island since Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, became president and refused to accept the one-China principle.