Panama’s ditching of Taiwan is ‘latest sign that Beijing means business’

Analysts see the move to cut ties with Taiwan as evidence cross-strait relations will remain frosty

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 12:01am

Panama, a small Central American nation that tilted the balance of cross-strait relations further against Taipei by switching its ­official recognition to Beijing ­on Tuesday, actually first attempted to do so nearly a decade ago.

Panama’s decision leaves ­Taiwan with only 20 allies, in terms of countries with which it has formal ties.

Diplomatic observers noted that the timing of Panama’s decision was likely to have been decided by Beijing. And they said this demonstrated yet again that mainland leaders under ­President Xi Jinping wanted to inflict maximum political cost on the independence-leaning government in Taiwan under President Tsai Ing-wen, by suffocating the self-ruling island’s international space through ­aggressive diplomacy.

The analysts say Panama tried nearly a decade ago to dump Taipei and establish full diplomatic ties with the mainland, one of its top trading partners and the number two user of the Panama Canal.

But it was Beijing that had ­rejected Panama’s offer to switch official recognition in January 2010, over concerns that it could hurt warming ties with Taiwan’s then president Ma Ying-jeou, according to leaked US diplomatic cables on Wikileaks.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela broke the news of severing ties with Taipei that dated back to 1912 in a televised address on Tuesday. He was the official in charge of diplomatic negotiations with Beijing in 2010.

According to a cable dated February 23, 2010, Varela, then foreign minister, expressed frustration over Beijing’s decision not to embrace Panama diplomatically to the American ambassador to Panama, Barbara Stephenson.

During a trip to Asia in January 2010, then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi told Varela that “due to diplomatic overtures under way between Beijing and Taipei, now was not the time for Panama to recognise the [People’s Republic of China]”, it said.

Panama has been on the front lines of a diplomatic wrestling match between Taiwan and Beijing for decades.

However, it was not until 2009 that leading Panamanian politicians, including Varela and President Ricardo Martinelli, who took power that year, appeared to agree that it was time to cut ties with Taipei.

Panama’s neighbour, Costa Rica, had ended its relationship with Taipei and recognised Beijing in 2007.

Despite their repeated public denials, both Taipei and Beijing had relied heavily on economic incentives or “chequebook diplomacy”, according to Wikileaks and diplomatic observers.

“We won’t need to wait long before we see other Taiwan allies [switch recognition], like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which have set up trade representative offices in China,” Xu Shicheng, a research fellow in Latin American studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

Beijing views self-ruling Taiwan as a breakaway province and opposes any official ties between the island and other countries.

The central government, deeply suspicious of Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, has adopted an approach of isolating Taiwan since she took office in 2016.

Panama is the second country that has switched diplomatic ties under Tsai’s watch. In December, the West African island of Sao Tome and Principe cut its relations with Taiwan.

Tuesday’s diplomatic deal was sealed when a joint communique was signed in Beijing between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Panamanian counterpart Isabel de Saint Malo.

“This is a historic moment. China-Panama relations have opened a new chapter,” Wang said, describing Panama’s decision as in “complete accordance” with its people’s interests and “in keeping with the times”.

“I’m convinced that this is the correct path for our country,” ­Varela said in his TV address.

Tsai said at a brief press conference on Tuesday that Taiwan would not yield to Beijing’s “threats and provocation”.

In an effort to cement ties with Panama amid rampant speculation of diplomatic changes, Tsai had attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the expanded ­Panama Canal last year.

However, Beijing had long ago made it clear the cross-strait truce that prevailed under Ma was over, so yesterday’s diplomatic switch should come as no surprise, Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said.

“Beijing’s objective is to cause political embarrassment to the Tsai administration and thus inflict a political cost by showing that her mainland policy, in contrast to that of Ma, brought this about,” he said.

But although Tuesday’s switch was hailed as a triumph in Beijing, observers cautioned that it could stoke negative reactions from the Taiwanese, who would see Beijing as a bully, and push the island further away from the mainland.

Angry Taiwan threatens rethink of cross-strait relations as Panama switches ties to Beijing

“Beijing will need to consider the consequences, that if it continues to woo away several more allies from Taiwan, it will not only cause further resentment among the Taiwanese public, but it might also force itself into a corner,” Emilio Kung, director of the Graduate Institute of Latin America Studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said. “It will have to take an even harsher approach in dealing with Taiwan if wooing away Taiwan’s allies proves not as effective as it had thought.

“If that is the case, it will not only worsen cross-strait relations but will also result in political repercussions from within Taiwan,” Kung said.

The analysts said that Beijing would further intensify its efforts to alienate Taipei, and that they expected more of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies – which are mostly small, impoverished nations in Africa, Latin America and the Asia Pacific region, as well as the Vatican – might follow ­Panama’s lead under Beijing’s assertive diplomacy.

Additional reporting by Lawrence Chung