June 14, 2017 6:00 am JST

Taiwan alarmed by Chinese overtures to its diplomatic allies

Panama's switch could ripple through Central, South America

KENSAKU IHARA and OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writers

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen issues a statement on June 13.(Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

TAIPEI/BEIJING -- After Panama announced Tuesday it is severing ties with Taiwan in favor of China, Taipei fears that the mainland will ramp up efforts to recruit the island's remaining friends in Central and South America.

The Taiwanese president's office harshly condemned Beijing's actions, which it called "a dangerous provocation to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and the region at large." It said Taipei will reassess cross-strait relations.

Since taking office a year ago, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has sought a dialogue with Beijing, breaking with the pro-independence stance of her Democratic Progressive Party. But recent developments could make her change tack.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Tawei Lee also expressed his frustration Tuesday, charging that Panama had cheated Taiwan and bowed to Beijing for economic gain.

In December, Sao Tome and Principe, a small island nation off Africa, severed ties with Taiwan under pressure from Beijing. But Panama's decision is a much heavier blow, since Taipei asserts that its ties with the Central American nation dated more than a century to the days of the Qing Dynasty. The Panama Canal is the key conduit between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Tsai even went to Panama in June for her first overseas trip as president in order to build on their relationship.

Now only 20 countries across the world recognize Taiwan as an independent state. While the tally includes tiny Pacific island nations like Palau and Tuvalu, as well as Burkina Faso and the Vatican, most are located in Central and South America. After the U.S. did little to curb China's move in Panama, a Taiwanese official worries that the entire region could turn into a hunting ground for Beijing.

Latin American nations have picked sides based on currents in international relations. In 2007, Costa Rica cut ties with Taiwan in favor of mainland China. Taipei suspects Nicaragua could be next. A Hong Kong-based company with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party is apparently building the planned canal there connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Even when governments cut diplomatic ties, civilians are generally free to travel between the countries. But without an embassy they can go to, many who are concerned about potential problems or who have business aspirations could shy away.

Meanwhile, China is turning up the heat on Taiwan. Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Panamanian counterpart Isabel de Saint Malo on Tuesday to signed a joint statement establishing formal ties. Panama "recognizes there is but one China in the world," and it is the People's Republic, the document states.

Mainland China is now the world's second-largest economy, and is only expanding its influence through its Belt and Road Initiative. It presumably will continue to pursue Central and South American partners.

Beijing is also sending a message to the U.S. In addition, isolating Taiwan helps boost President Xi Jinping's standing at home ahead of the key party congress this fall. With the Chinese military pushing for a tougher stance on Taiwan, cross-strait relations could deteriorate even further.

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