From January 7-15, 2017, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited four of the five nations in Central America that still diplomatically recognize her government: Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. While each stop was filled with discussions of friendship, trade and aid, the unspoken imperative for President Tsai was to shore up Taiwan’s position in the face of the likely resumption of the diplomatic struggle between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In 2008, then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and PRC President Hu Jintao agreed to suspend the diplomatic competition between their nations, while Taiwan and the PRC pursued closer economic and political ties. From 2008 through 2016, both honored the truce, even though virtually all of Central America’s presidents informally expressed interest in recognizing the PRC, including Richard Martinelli in Panama, Manuel Zelaya and Pepe Lobo in Honduras, and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador.
After the election of Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) in January 2016, the PRC signaled a shift away from rapprochement toward a more conflictual course. In March 2016, two months before President Tsai’s inauguration, the PRC abruptly accepted a 3-year old offer by the African government of Gambia to establish diplomatic relations. Eight months later, Sao Tome and Principe also changed its diplomatic posture and recognized the PRC. In January 2017, as President Tsai left for Central America, the African country of Nigeria (which recognizes the PRC), ordered Taiwan to move its commercial office out of the capital, apparently at the behest of the PRC, which was providing its friend a new $40 billion aid package.
Given that 11 of the 21 countries that recognize Taiwan are located in Central America and the Caribbean, it is not surprising that Taiwan has paid close attention to the region during such difficult times. January’s trip to Central America was President Tsai’s second (she travelled to Panama in June 2016); her predecessor visited Honduras in both 2009 and 2014, Guatemala in 2009 and 2016, Belize in 2009 and 2016, and El Salvador in 2009 and 2014. Taiwan has sustained generous donations to each of the countries, from development programs to investment, to military support, to regularly bringing the region’s leaders to Taiwan for lavish trips. Taiwanese aid to the region also includes multilateral aid, given through the Central American Integration System (SICA), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIICE).
Before the “diplomatic truce” period, the PRC was ostensibly working to lay the groundwork for a long game to establish diplomatic relations with the remaining countries in Central America once circumstances permitted. In March 2007, it established the Central American Federation for Friendship with China, to coordinate the activities of pro-PRC groups across the region, including the Salvadoran Association for Friendship with the China (ASACHI), the Foundation for Friendship between the Chinese People and Honduras, and the China-Guatemala Friendship Association.
On the commercial front in Central America, even without diplomatic relations, the PRC had begun to overshadow Taiwan as a commercial partner. In Honduras, Chinese construction companies won contracts for two hydroelectric power facilities: Patucha III and Aqua Zarca; while in Guatemala, they participated in the thermoelectric plant Jaguar. In telecommunications, Huawei and ZTE have become major product vendors and infrastructure providers in the Central American market.
As President Tsai set off on her January 2017 trip, she recognized just how tenuous Taiwan’s position had become, noting that the trip was not just about consolidating friendships, but also raising the morale of her diplomats.
Given the increased diplomatic pressure from the PRC, the most striking aspect of President Tsai’s trip to Central America was that she largely went empty handed, making almost no public promises of new development projects or other aid. Indeed, the focus of her trip was notably on trade and investment, rather than donations, perhaps reflecting that, in previous years, Taiwan was largely seen as “paying” its partners for diplomatic recognition. On this most recent trip, the focus was subtly but importantly different. President Tsai was accompanied by a large delegation of businesspeople, emphasizing the role of Taiwan as a bridge for Central American states to access Asian markets, leveraging vehicles such as the 2007 Taiwan-Honduras-El Salvador Free Trade Agreement, and separate free trade agreements with Nicaragua and Guatemala.
In Honduras, President Tsai met with her counterpart Juan Orlando Hernandez and spoke of a new era of trade and investment between the two, with a focus on textiles, tourism, agriculture and manufacturing.
In Nicaragua, in addition to attending the Presidential inauguration of Daniel Ortega, President Tsai spoke of importing more Nicaraguan agricultural goods, possibly revising the free-trade agreement between the nations. The “Nicaragua Canal” went notably unmentioned, although PRC funding for the Canal would be a logical incentive, were Nicaragua to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, as some in Nicaragua have suggested is under consideration.
In Guatemala, by contrast to the preceding stops, President Tsai was more willing to highlight Taiwanese aid, mentioning Taiwan’s participation in improving the highway from Guatemala City to the Atlantic coast, as well as providing medical equipment, scholarships for studying in Taiwan, and equipment to transmit the proceedings of the Guatemalan Congress to the nation.
In her meeting with El Salvador’s President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, President Tsai emphasized Taiwan’s collaboration with El Salvador in education, science and technology, tourism, institution building, and even climate change, as well as Taiwan’s work with the multilateral Central American Integration System (SICA). Yet as during her other stops, President Tsai did not highlight any single new program or donation.
It was notable that President Tsai did not visit Panama, the only other country in Central America that still recognizes Taiwan.
What President Tsai said to these leaders behind closed doors may never be known. Yet, even the most skillful diplomacy might not be enough to keep Central America in Taiwan’s corner if the PRC fully resumes its diplomatic offensive. Such a war is not predetermined, and if it occurs, it will not necessarily play out quickly, but rather in slow motion, as Beijing picks off Taiwan’s diplomatic allies one by one, year after year. The ultimate effect of the latter approach would be the same, but would probably avoid serious scrutiny. It is likely that President Tsai’s triumphant tour of Central America in reality points to even more challenging days ahead for Taiwan.
The main point: Even the most skillful diplomacy might not be enough to keep Central America in Taiwan’s corner if the PRC fully resumes its diplomatic offensive.