In another blow to Taiwan’s ever-shrinking list of diplomatic allies comes the news that Panama has severed ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing a relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Panama’s announcement comes only months after Sao Tome and Principe cut ties with Taiwan in favor of China. With these two nations switching recognition, Taiwan has only 20 official diplomatic allies. As China continues to exert pressure on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that holds a majority in the country’s legislature, China will attempt to poach more of Taiwan’s allies in an attempt to further isolate Taiwan from the international space.
The Office of the President released a statement addressing the switch in recognition: “We express our deep regret and disappointment at the Republic of Panama’s decision to renounce our long-standing friendship and establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”
The End of the Diplomatic Truce
Though people unfamiliar with Taiwan are not likely to see the importance of the end of this relationship, it is important to understand how China acted during the tenure of former President Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan’s other major political party that has a more a pro-China view than the DPP. At the beginning of his presidency in 2008, Ma announced that he was pursuing a policy that he called a “diplomatic truce,” in which Taiwan and China tacitly agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies. In 2008, Ma said during the planning stages, “If the diplomatic truce turns out to be a successful strategy, it might be possible that we won’t gain any more allies, but we won’t lose any either.”
Ma’s prediction almost proved true. During his two terms in office, Taiwan only lost one ally, Gambia, in 2013. However, China did not establish official relations with Gambia until 2016, only a few months before Ma left office and Tsai took his place. The delay in establishing relations could be seen as a sign of deference for the diplomatic truce under Ma’s presidency.
Unfortunately for Taiwan, the diplomatic truce has ended with China poaching two countries— Sao Tome and Principe and Panama—from Taiwan since Tsai took office in May 2016. Panama’s move has particularly angered Taiwan. In the summer of 2016, Tsai visited the country for the opening ceremony of the newly expanded Panama Canal. Panama and Taiwan had good relations and exchanges before this announcement.
The canal is most likely the primary reason for Panama’s sudden decision since China is its “second most important customer.” China now has no incentive to stop using the canal, and it cannot dangle its high level of usage over Panama as a veiled threat. The move now also calls into question the China-backed Nicaragua Canal as Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan, not China. The project’s viability had already been hotly debated, and perhaps Panama hopes that China will focus less on the Nicaragua Canal as a result of its decision.
Tsai released a statement criticizing China’s role in the Panama switch as well as its recent actions in trying to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world:
Although we have lost a diplomatic ally, our refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change. The fact that the Republic of China exists will not change. And Taiwan’s value and standing in the international community will not change.
We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged nor traded. China has continued to manipulate the “one China” principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people. But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.
The question, now, for Taiwan is what will happen next. Sao Tome and Principe’s decision to switch to China did not cause much angst in Taiwan since the small island nation apparently asked for $200 million before its switch in recognition. The country was essentially demanding a handout for the continuation of relations, but the Panama case appears different and unexpected. China’s poaching of these nations is exactly what the diplomatic truce under the Ma years stopped, but with Tsai in office, China has decided to alter its course.
Now, if China is truly opening its wallet to Taiwan’s other 20 allies, can Taiwan—or any nation—blame them for accepting a switch in recognition for the prospect or promise of millions of dollars in aid and/or investment? There is not much that Taiwan can do since the Tsai administration has stated that it will not engage in this practice for the sake of stability across the Taiwan Strait. As pressure continues to mount on Taiwan and as its list of allies grows thin, Taiwan may need to rethink its strategy for keeping or finding allies in light of China’s recent actions.