Tsai firms up ties in Central America

Fears that allies would ditch Taiwan ease as island's leader gets warm welcome

As Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen wrapped up her visit to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America, she could heave a sigh of relief.

There had been fears that Nicaragua might ditch Taiwan as a diplomatic ally after West African nation Sao Tome and Principe switched allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with just 21 allies.

But she got a warm welcome from the heads of state of the four countries. Even her Nicaraguan counterpart, Mr Daniel Ortega, had pledged to support Taiwan's participation in various international organisations.

Observers like Taiwan's former defence minister Lin Chong-Pin agreed that the trip went well, attributing its success to how Ms Tsai has shown restraint by not meeting US President-elect Donald Trump or his transition team during her stopovers in the United States.

There was talk earlier that a meeting might be on the cards after an unprecedented phone call between Ms Tsai and Mr Trump last month. Still, there were a few bumps. Her stopover in Texas where she met two senior Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, drew opposition from China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: "We are firmly opposed to the Taiwan leader's engagement with US officials under the pretext of transit, and her attempt to undermine China-US relations."

Two days later, China's aircraft carrier sailed into the Taiwan Strait in a move seen as Beijing piling the pressure on Taiwan, after Ms Tsai did not acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, a tacit agreement that enshrines the "one China" principle.

UNHAPPY CHINA

We are firmly opposed to the Taiwan leader's engagement with US officials under the pretext of transit, and her attempt to undermine China-US relations.

CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN LU KANG, on Ms Tsai.

A day later, Nigeria ordered Taiwan to move its trade office from capital city Abuja to port city Lagos after Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

Taiwan expert Ross Feingold said China's recent actions against Taiwan are not to its benefit.

The senior adviser at political consultancy DC International Advisor said: "They don't make people in Taiwan feel better or encourage them to be friendlier to China."

But Mr Lin thinks China has been measured in its response. "Beijing is merely sticking to the script, reasserting the 'one China' policy, and using psychological pressure and military intimidation to send a message to pro-independence advocates."

Mr Lin said China is, in fact, giving Ms Tsai some wiggle room to handle cross-strait ties.

He said that while President Xi Jinping has to keep up with China's tough rhetoric on Taiwan, he is also busy with reforms to accelerate China's slowing economic growth, his anti-corruption campaign and preparing for the Chinese Communist Party's 19th National Congress in October.

"While he holds a lot of power, he still has political rivals who are waiting to seize on any opportunity to attack him if he has a weak response to Taiwan and any pro-independence rhetoric.

"But he will not do anything more, at least for now, to rock the boat," said Mr Lin.

Analysts say Taipei has to think of how best to deal with China's new diplomatic offensive, in which it pressures countries, even those with no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, to cut all links.

National Chengchi University political analyst Yen Chen-shen said Taiwan should not just provide financial aid to get the support of its remaining diplomatic allies, many of which are small and poor nations.

Instead, the Tsai administration should continue its brand of "steadfast diplomacy", in which Taiwan and other economies can partner to achieve mutual benefits, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2017, with the headline 'Tsai firms up ties in Central America'. Print Edition | Subscribe