When El Salvador broke ties with Taiwan to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes remarked that China is “trying to find weak spots in the region, where they can make these kinds of arrangements […] we are concerned it is not only investment in a port, but then they want to do something with their military and they want to expand Chinese influence in the region.” What kinds of arrangements was Ambassador Manes referring to? What would China want to do with its military in a place as far away from China as Central America?
While the media attention of this defection has been focused on its impact to Taiwan’s diplomatic space, there is another element relating to China’s strategic intentions in the Western Hemisphere that also warrants concerns. For El Salvador, China would be interested in its civilian port La Unión, which it could possibly revive by implementing terms of agreement favorable to Beijing such as a long-term lease. Civilian access to the port could turn into military access over time. Therefore, as Taiwan had recently lost El Salvador as its diplomatic ally, China could take the opportunity to expand its military access there as an entry into Latin America, which would lead to new and growing security concerns for the United States in its own hemisphere.
El Salvador’s security value to China
Up until two decades ago, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy, or PLAN) was a regional military force that was constrained to its periphery, but it started to take on more distant missions centered on China’s participation in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden east of Africa. Multinational cooperation and burden sharing was the political basis of China’s naval expansion in what is often called China’s “string of pearls” of military access to ports throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
After establishing military access to foreign ports, China started going beyond its counter-piracy mission by regularly sailing the PLA Navy far beyond the Gulf of Aden into the Mediterranean and throughout more distant areas of Africa. This is the international context of China’s expanding naval influence for Ambassador Manes’ remarks about how China’s growing influence over El Salvador and how China “wants to do something with their military and they want to expand Chinese influence in the region.”
As China’s navy sails further from home, it needs to access new ports to refuel and resupply its naval vessels. China’s ability to refuel and resupply overseas is generally accomplished in three predominant ways: using tanker ships to refuel military vessels while at sea; leveraging foreign commercial ports for military purposes to refuel and resupply military vessels; and officially establish its own military bases. El Salvador would be valuable for the latter two, which are China’s growing global efforts to leverage commercial ports for military purposes, and to establish its own military bases overseas.
Economic to political to military leverage
To leverage foreign commercial ports for military purposes, China’s modus operandi is to use another country’s economic dependence on Beijing as leverage for military influence. China spends hundreds of millions of dollars to “help” other countries build large commercial ports and tie up the country in debt to the PRC’s state-controlled banks. When the country cannot service the debt, then China negotiates to take control of the port. It has been described as “debt-trap diplomacy,” which translates economic dependence into political leverage.
Sri Lanka is the archetype for this debt trap behavior since Chinese PLA Navy submarines have docked at a port in Colombo in the past. Furthermore, Sri Lanka has signed over a 99 year lease of its Hambantota civilian port to China in exchange for $1.1 billion US dollars, and there is a possibility that China will use its access to this civilian port for military purposes in the future.
Aside from leveraging commercial ports for military purposes, China is also starting to set up overseas military bases just in the past few years. It is a stark contrast from its past practice from even a decade ago of its policy foregoing overseas basing. In Southeast Asia, it is common knowledge by now that China has built and militarized islands in the South China Sea. Further away, China is building a new naval base and airfield in Jiwani near Gwadar, Pakistan.
The clearest conflict of interest between the United States and China is China’s new base in Djibouti, which is curious since China’s military base in Djibouti is just a few miles away from the US’ military base Camp Lemonnier also in Djibouti. Either the United States did not try to work with Djibouti to try to stop China from building a base there, or possibly tried and couldn not stop it. If this precedent repeats with El Salvador, then China might succeed in establishing a military base there even over US protests. There are two key reasons why this Djibouti precedent is less likely to repeat in El Salvador.
Special Western Hemisphere concerns
There is good reason to think that El Salvador would be an exception from what occurred in Djibouti and other places in South Asia, Middle East, and Africa. First, the United States views the Western Hemisphere with more sensitivity than the rest of the world, and has taken more measures to guard US interests throughout Central and South America since at least the time of the Monroe Doctrine.
Second, the United States views China differently in these past several years compared to five or ten years ago, and only recently have official documents such as the US’ National Security Strategy of 2017 called China a “revisionist” threat, and with US diplomatic statements calling China a “strategic competitor.” It means that the United States would likely be more cautious about expansion of China’s military bases now and into the future, especially if it relates to Central and South America, such as the El Salvador possibility.
Considering the US’ special attention and interest in its own region, Ambassador Manes added, “the US is analyzing El Salvador’s decision. It is worrying for many reasons, including the breaking of a relationship over more than 80 years with Taiwan. Without a doubt, this will impact our relationship with the government. We will continue to support the Salvadoran people.”
US Senator Marco Rubio reacted more strongly against El Salvador’s decision in a public tweet: “Would be terrible mistake for govt of #ElSalvador to switch diplomatic recognition from #Taiwan to #China. Maybe they think China $ will help governing party win elections in 2019. But will cause real harm to relationship with US including their role in #AllianceforProsperity.”
More generally, El Salvador’ switch away from formal diplomatic recognition with Taiwan toward China is part of a disconcerting trend of China poaching Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies. It is serious because the number of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic allies has dropped below twenty and is steadily decreasing. I previously published a Global Taiwan Brief article about the danger of cross-Strait political instability as Taiwan approaches zero diplomatic allies. However, Taiwan maintains strong informal diplomatic relations through its TECRO educational and cultural resource officers in the United States, Europe, Latin America and throughout the world that function as de facto embassies and consulates; so Taiwan is still informally connected with almost all countries in the world to successfully perform diplomatic, economic, and security engagement with its diplomatic partners.
Soon after US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes said that the United States is concerned that China actually wants to “expand Chinese influence in the region” starting with investing in a port in El Salvador, the United States recalled Ambassador Manes along with US ambassadors to the Dominican Republic and Panama. The reported reason is that Washington expressed concern over the rising number of countries that have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China. The United States could do more to encourage other countries to support Taiwan, do much more itself to support Taiwan on the global stage, and in the process ensure US security interests in the Western Hemisphere and around the world.
The main point: As Taiwan recently lost its diplomatic ally El Salvador, China could take steps toward gaining naval access there, which would lead to new security concerns for the United States in the Western Hemisphere. These are setbacks for both Taiwan and the United States.