US recalls top diplomats after three Taipei allies in Latin America switch recognition to Beijing

Envoys in Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Panama summoned by Washington to discuss how US ‘can support strong, independent, democratic institutions’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 9:23pm

The United States has signalled its concern over Beijing’s expanding influence in Latin America by recalling its top diplomats from three Central American and Caribbean countries that cut diplomatic ties with Taipei.

It is the first time since Beijing has stepped up efforts to woo Taipei’s allies that Washington has recalled its envoys over the cross-strait diplomatic tussle in its backyard.

The US State Department said on Saturday that Robin Bernstein, the US ambassador to the Dominican Republic; Jean Manes, its ambassador to El Salvador; and Roxanne Cabral, the US chargé d’affaires in Panama, had been recalled “for consultations related to recent decisions to no longer recognise” the self-ruled island.

Taiwan ally Nauru’s snub to Beijing threatened to derail Pacific summit

The diplomats would meet “US government leaders to discuss ways in which the United States can support strong, independent, democratic institutions and economies throughout Central America and the Caribbean”, the department said.

Washington has expressed concerns over Beijing’s pursuit of Taipei’s diplomatic allies since Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party became the island’s president in 2016. Taiwan now has 17 allies, down from 22 just over two years ago.

Panama switched recognition to Beijing last year, the Dominican Republic did so in May, and El Salvador followed suit last month, triggering strong warnings from Washington.

The White House said El Salvador’s decision would “affect the economic health and security of the entire Americas region”.

China has stepped up its investment and presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, offering to put US$250 billion in direct investment in the region.

It has also encouraged the countries to take part in the “Belt and Road Initiative”, a flagship project launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping to boost trade and infrastructure links.

Chinese companies have shown interest in building ports in the region, triggering unease in the US. In July, Manes warned that China planned to turn the La Union commercial port in El Salvador’s east into a “military base”.

Francisco Luis Perez, a Latin-American Studies expert at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, said the US was more aware of the challenges of Beijing’s presence, but he was not sure if the move would help Taipei.

“The action is unprecedented and shows the beginning of a new strategy. It is hard to foresee the next steps, but I guess they will be a combination of economic and trade incentives and punishments,” he said.

Chen I-Hsin, a professor of political science at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said the US saw the diplomatic switch of the three nations as a threat to its national security.

“Recalling the ambassadors is also a warning to other nations in the region that they have to take care of US interests if they want American aid and investment,” Chen said.

He said the US could take further action by lowering the ranking of diplomatic staff stationed in the three countries, and reviewing its policy in Latin America.

“Recalling an ambassador is just the first step. The US has to take follow-up action if it wants to retain its influence in the region and prevent Taiwan from losing its allies,” Chen said.

US senators introduce legislation to punish Taiwan allies who switch sides, accusing Beijing of ‘bullying’

Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong said the US diplomatic recall was extraordinary.

“The administration of US President Donald Trump is strengthening its pro-Taiwan strategic gestures while intensifying conflict with China on all fronts – from the South China Sea, to North Korea, the military, trade and technology,” Shi said.

“It shows the US does not tolerate China’s expanding influence and that supporting Taiwan is important to maintaining US interests.”

He said the US could cut subsidies to penalise nations that severed ties with Taiwan and upgrade its relationship with Taipei to reinforce its relationship with the island.

“China is expected to respond by putting an even tighter squeeze on Taiwan, including greater efforts to eradicate Taiwan’s diplomatic links and greater direct pressure on the economic and military fronts,” Shi said.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province to be taken back, by the use of force if necessary.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Taiwan was in close communication with the US over the island’s place in the international community.

Rafael Sierra, the Honduran ambassador to Taiwan, said Honduras would work to strengthen its ties with Taiwan.

“The US is free to act accordingly to what they think is right or wrong,” Sierra said. “Our ties need to depend on the relationship of our people regardless of the actions of other countries.”

On Wednesday, US senators introduced legislation to authorise the State Department to downgrade the US’ relations with any government that shifts away from Taiwan, and to suspend or alter US assistance.

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng