Tsai Ing-wen
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Laureano Ortega Murillo, son of and advisor to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (left) and Chinese vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu display their jointly signed communique on the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Tianjin on Friday. Photo: Xinhua via AP

Who needs Nicaragua? Taiwan and the tug of war for diplomatic allies

  • The number of countries with official ties with the island has fallen to 14, with the loss of Managua
  • Taipei is now more focused on gaining international recognition through substantive ties and taking part in global bodies
Tsai Ing-wen

The decision by another Taiwanese ally to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing has barely caused a ripple of concern on the island, with the public preferring greater international participation rather than a diplomatic tug of war with mainland China.

But Beijing will remain in the way to hamper the island’s efforts to increase its global presence, according to observers.

Nicaragua, one of Taiwan’s nine remaining allies in Latin America and the Caribbean, declared on Friday that it was switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It is the eighth country to cut ties with Taipei since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory that must be brought back to the mainland fold, and to quash any push for independence, it has steadily won over a number of Taipei’s allies over the years, leaving the island with just 14.

But when asked to comment on Nicaragua’s decision on Friday, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je was unruffled, reflecting the general public mood.

“Is there anything unusual? Do we really need Nicaragua to assert our existence?” he said.

He said that even if Taiwan’s allies cut ties with Taipei, the island would continue to exist globally on the grounds that it maintained substantial relations with many other countries.


‘There’s only one China’: Nicaragua ends diplomatic ties with Taipei, switches to Beijing

‘There’s only one China’: Nicaragua ends diplomatic ties with Taipei, switches to Beijing

The attitude was also prevalent online, with commenters saying that losing another ally had become common.

According to an online survey by, as of noon Saturday, more than 60 per cent of respondents did not think the termination of official ties mattered.

“Be my guest,” said a netizen who left a message at the local SET TV news website.

“That’s nice. We can save our money,” another netizen said, referring to millions of US dollars of aid Taiwan had given Nicaragua over the past three decades.

Many of the commenters said that as long as Taiwan could extend its international reach, maintain substantive ties and take part in international organisations, the island would continue as an international entity.

“We have support from the United States and many countries in the world, including Japan, Australia and those in Europe,” high-school teacher Yang Yi-feng said.

“Even though they do not have official ties with us, this does not affect our exchanges and contacts with them.”

Why China’s Nicaragua move is as much about the US as it is about Taiwan

Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub think tank, also thought it was more important for Taiwan to expand its substantive ties.

“To me, Taiwan’s unofficial relationships are much more critical. However, the break with Nicaragua raises the question of how effectively Washington is implementing the TAIPEI Act, which includes provisions on the US helping Taiwan maintain its official diplomatic relationships,” she said.

Since 2017, both former US president Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden have greatly promoted substantive ties with Taiwan despite strong protests from Beijing. Washington switched recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, but it has maintained close ties with the island, including supplying arms to help Taiwan defend itself.

A government source in Taiwan admitted that it was critical for Taiwan to develop its unofficial relationships with other countries in the face of long-time diplomatic pressure from Beijing.

“Since President Tsai has assumed office, we have adopted the ‘steadfast diplomacy’ strategy to win more friendship and support from the international community that does not recognise us diplomatically,” the source said on condition of anonymity.

In addition to offering development aid to official allies, Taiwan has sought to expand substantive ties with democratic countries and get their support for Taiwan’s international participation, according to the source.

The source said that with the help of the US, many countries, including such US allies as Japan, Britain and Australia, had thrown their support behind Taiwan, to prevent Beijing isolating it internationally.

Lithuania is one example. The country does not have formal ties with us, but it is willing to swap representative offices with us despite angry protests by China,” the source said, adding Lithuania had US backing in this case.
Taipei opened its de facto embassy in Vilnius last month and Lithuania will set up its office in Taiwan next year, prompting Beijing to recall its ambassador and slap trade sanctions on the Baltic state.

In recent months, France, Germany and the Netherlands have been among various European states to voice support for Taiwan’s international participation and closer economic cooperation with the island.


No change to US’ one-China stand on Taiwan, Blinken tells Wang Yi on G20 sidelines in Rome

No change to US’ one-China stand on Taiwan, Blinken tells Wang Yi on G20 sidelines in Rome

Li Da-jung, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said that as Beijing became a military and economic threat in the world, more countries were willing to side with Taiwan, especially with the US beating the drum.

“But official relations cannot be replaced by unofficial relations or international organisations,” he said, adding there were still limits to what countries without official ties with Taiwan could do if they wanted to avoid conflict with Beijing.

Beijing would also always be an obstacle to Taiwan joining international bodies like the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, Li said.

Arthur Wang Zhin-sheng, secretary general of the Asia-Pacific Elite Interchange Association, a Taipei-based think tank, said keeping formal ties was important because it underpinned the sovereignty of Taiwan.

He said the island must do all it could to keep its allies while increasing its substantive ties with other countries and seeking to join as many international organisations as possible.

“If no country recognises Taiwan, it is difficult for us to uphold our sovereignty,” he said.