Taiwan's Tsai to visit Panama as alliance comes under question

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is set to visit Panama next week in her first overseas trip since taking office.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is set to visit Panama next week in her first overseas trip since taking office.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's new president is set to visit Panama next week in her first overseas trip since taking office, amid speculation that it could become the next ally to switch allegiance to Beijing.

Beijing-sceptic Tsai Ing-wen's trip to the inauguration of the newly expanded Panama Canal comes as ties between Taiwan and mainland China turn rapidly frostier.

Taiwan has been self-ruling since a split with the mainland in 1949 after a civil war, but it has never declared formal independence.

China still sees it as part of its territory and is highly suspicious of Tsai's traditionally independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Taiwan has haemorrhaged allies in recent decades as they jumped ship to align with an ascendant China - it is now only recognised by 22 states.

The diplomatic tug-of-war had eased under Taiwan's previous Beijing-friendly government.

But in March, two months after Tsai won the presidency by a landslide, China recognised Taiwan's former ally Gambia, seen as the end of the unofficial truce.

Latin America was a major diplomatic battleground when the DPP was last in power from 2000-2008, with Taiwan and China accusing each other of luring allies away with "cheque book diplomacy". Speculation has been rife in Taiwan's local media that Panama will now be lured away by Beijing.

Panama reportedly invited Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the canal inauguration, and a Chinese-owned freighter will be the first vessel to pass through it.

China is the second-biggest user of the Panama Canal.

However, Taiwan's foreign ministry insisted ties were "stable" with its 22 allies.

"We hope to show our country's sincerity in strengthening bilateral ties with the allies through the visit," said deputy foreign minister Javier Hou.

Tsai will also travel to ally Paraguay and make transit stops in Miami and Los Angeles - another decision likely to irk Beijing.

The United States is Taiwan's main ally and arms supplier despite the lack of diplomatic relations.

China has previously objected to Taiwanese leaders' transit visits to the country which it viewed as a form of "official" contact.

"It's our own decision and we don't need to ask other countries," Hou said when asked about possible backlash.

Hou, citing information from Panama, said that more than 70 countries have been invited to the inauguration, including a deputy section chief of external trade and international cooperation from China's commerce ministry.

"His ranking is lower... although if he comes by to say hello, we will not turn him away," Hou said.