Taiwan, the United States, and Japan announced in mid-July their plan to host the next workshop of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF, 全球合作暨訓練架構) in Guatemala. The three formal GCTF partners will organize several virtual seminars on the digital economy for the Latin American and Caribbean region in hopes of extending the forum—a US-Taiwan cooperation platform established in 2015—to a region where Taiwan still enjoys significant diplomatic support. In a video remark, Taiwan’s Vice Foreign Minister Miguel Tsao (曹立傑) called Latin America and the Caribbean “an important region of Taiwan’s international relations as [it is where] the majority of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are located.” “We hope to enhance cooperation among Taiwan, the US, Japan, and our diplomatic allies in the region to create a closer circle of friendship,” Tsao added. After Panama switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2017, Guatemala has become the Republic of China’s (ROC)—the formal name of Taiwan—most enduring and consequential diplomatic-ally in Central America. Currently, Taiwan’s relations with Guatemala are characterized by mutual support for each side’s national interests, solid economic and trade ties, and joint resistance against Chinese pressure.
Guatemala’s Importance for Taiwan
The ROC and Guatemala established diplomatic relations in 1933. Guatemala is now the ROC’s longest-lasting ally in Central America, after Panama—which had previously maintained relations with the ROC since 1912—switched recognition to the PRC in June 2017 following a long-running contest between Beijing and Taipei. Guatemala is also one of the ROC’s 15 remaining diplomatic allies worldwide, as well as one of its five diplomatic partners in Central America, along with Honduras, Paraguay, Belize, and Nicaragua.
Former Taiwan leaders Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), as well as President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), have all visited Guatemala during their tenures in office. During his state visits to Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay, and Honduras in 2001, former president Chen Shui-bian urged these diplomatic allies to support Taiwan’s membership into the United Nations (UN). Furthermore, in his 2016 farewell tour of Central America prior to leaving office, Ma Ying-jeou delivered a speech thanking regional allies for their support of Taiwan at the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano, PARLACEN), the parliamentary body of the Central American Integration System (SICA), headquartered in Guatemala City. Taiwan’s permanent observer status in PARLACEN, which was established in 1991, has helped deepen strategic cooperation with regional countries. PARLACEN has passed resolutions supporting Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Association (WHA), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
President Tsai has also visited Central American allies since she took office in 2016. In January 2017, she delivered an address at Guatemala’s Congress, stating that “For many years, Guatemala has spoken up on Taiwan’s behalf in the international community. On behalf of the government of the Republic of China, I thank Guatemala.” Her address was broadcast on Guatemala’s congressional channel on a new broadcasting system that Taiwan had helped to set up. During Tsai’s visit, Guatemala’s then-president Jimmy Morales asked the Taiwan government for more aid to help fund a major highway project connecting Guatemala City to the Atlantic Ocean. In her public remarks, Tsai said Taiwan was pleased to have participated in the previous three stages of the highway project and indicated that Taipei would also provide assistance for future projects. During Morales’ visit to Taipei in April 2019, Tsai maintained that both sides have had robust cooperation in areas including infrastructure, public health, education, commerce, and technology.
Following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Taiwan has provided related assistance to Guatemala and other Central American allies. Earlier this year, Taipei sent 180,000 surgical masks, along with other medical equipment, to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who assumed the presidency in January. Additionally, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said in June that it will be donating 10,000 COVID-19 test kits to Guatemala and Belize as part of its broader coronavirus assistance to its allies in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Guatemala, in return, has been one of several of Taiwan’s staunchest diplomatic allies and friends that have publicly expressed support for Taipei’s most recent bid to participate in the WHA meeting in Geneva this past May. A representative from Guatemala also spoke up on Taiwan’s behalf at a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in February, arguing that Taiwan is an important public health partner for his country. The Guatemalan government has also supported previous Taiwanese campaigns to join the WHA meetings.
Economic and Trade Relations
The Taiwan-Guatemala Free Trade Agreement (中華民國台灣 – 瓜地馬拉自由貿易協定) went into force in 2006, enhancing trade and economic exchanges between the two sides. Taiwan also signed FTAs with other regional countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama (prior to the severance of relations). The Taiwan-Guatemala FTA slashed tariffs on Taiwanese exports of industrial and agricultural products to Guatemala, as well as Guatemalan exports of agricultural goods to Taiwan, in addition to more than 7,000 items traded between the two sides. Following the implementation of the FTA, bilateral trade increased to more than USD $150 million annually and reached a height of USD $241 million in 2015. Last year, two-way trade stood at USD $208 million. Taiwan mainly imports sugar cane, coffee beans, and recycled copper from Guatemala, while exporting auto parts to its Central American ally.
In April, both sides expanded the scope of the FTA by eliminating tariffs on additional items, including Taiwanese bicycle and motorcycle exports and select Guatemalan agricultural goods. MOFA has encouraged Taiwanese businesses to invest more in Central American countries, which boast low labor and land costs and could help to buttress the United States in its ongoing trade war with China. Taiwan’s government plans to expand cooperation with the United States, Japan, and other friendly countries, including Guatemala, and will explore new commercial opportunities in Guatemala in 2020, said Phoebe Yeh (葉非比), director-general of MOFA’s Department of International Cooperation and Economic Affairs, late last year.
However, Guatemala’s trade with China, which climbed to nearly USD $2.6 billion in 2019, has grown exponentially faster than its bilateral trade with Taiwan. At the end of 2018, China signed a total of USD $600 million in contracts for projects in Guatemala and completed a turnover of USD $450 million in investment. Despite these trade disparities, the Central American country has remained a steadfast ally to Taiwan. Furthermore, Guatemala has purchased arms from the United States and to a lesser extent from Taiwan—but not from China. According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, Taiwan exported USD $2 million in arms to Guatemala in both 1996 and 2012. The United States is by far the leading supplier of arms to Guatemala, while the SIPRI database does not list any Chinese arms sales to Guatemala.
China’s Pressure Campaign on Guatemala
Beijing has pressured Guatemala to renounce its ties to the ROC for several decades. In the late 1990s, China used its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to veto a resolution on sending UN peacekeeping missions to monitor Guatemala’s peace accords, which ended 36 years of civil war. Beijing was reportedly furious with Guatemala’s decision to invite Taiwan’s then-Foreign Minister John Chiang (蔣孝嚴) to witness the historic signing of the accords on December 29, 1996. China has also used its veto-wielding power on Security Council resolutions regarding other countries, such as Haiti, that recognize the ROC.
More recently, Beijing has been stepping up pressure on the Guatemalan government to relinquish formal relations with the ROC. Guatemala has been under tremendous pressure from China to de-recognize the ROC, according to US Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), chairman of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy. Gardner, who made these remarks following a March 2019 meeting with the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, said that Guatemala has resisted China’s demands and that the United States should commend Taiwan’s allies and partners who have made the right decision. There were significant concerns that the loss of Panama, a major diplomatic setback for Taiwan, would lead to a domino effect in other Central American countries including Guatemala. Thus far, however, Guatemala has rejected China’s offer to switch recognition, but both Taiwan and the United States remain concerned about Beijing’s intensifying pressure campaign targeting the ROC’s diplomatic allies, as well as China’s rising political and economic influence in Latin America.
US-Taiwan Collaboration in Central America
Early this year, the first quadrilateral talks between Taiwan, the United States, Guatemala, and Honduras convened in Guatemala. In attendance at the talks were Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Acting US Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, the US International Development Finance Corporation’s Chief Executive Officer Adam Boehler, and the presidents and foreign ministers of Guatemala and Honduras. Taiwan and the United States discussed building partnerships with the two Central American countries in multiple areas, such as trade, infrastructure, and investment, as well as the creation of a multilateral cooperation mechanism. Taiwan’s MOFA subsequently released a statement saying that Taiwan will “continue to boost the prosperity and development of Central America.”
Central America is a key strategic region for the Donald J. Trump administration’s efforts to end illegal immigration into the United States, while the region constitutes a bastion of diplomatic support for Taiwan. Washington has provided assistance to improve governance and economic growth in Guatemala as part of its efforts to deter illegal immigration into the United States and to mitigate transnational criminal activity. Given Taiwan’s close ties and foreign assistance to Guatemala and other Central American countries, Washington, Taipei, and other like-minded partners could jointly enhance collaboration on promoting regional development and cooperation. As Washington and Taipei extend the GCTF to Central America, both sides could not only work to improve the internal conditions within Central American countries, but also shore up Taiwan’s diplomatic alliances to protect against Beijing’s encroachment into the region.
The main point: Following the loss of Panama to Beijing, Guatemala has become the Republic of China’s most enduring and consequential Central American diplomatic ally. Taiwan and the United States can utilize the GCTF to further enhance bilateral and multilateral cooperation in Central America.