Latin America and the Beijing-Taipei stand-off

Arthur Mac Dowell | Latin America Fellow

Nearly half-a-century after Beijing’s victory in the UN that led to the recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the sole representative of China setting aside the Republic of China from the organisation, the battle for recognition is finally coming to an end. Today, only a handful of countries continue to recognise and maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei in detriment of relations with Beijing, most of those are in Latin America.


The last couple of years have been decisive in Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taiwan. Latin America remains an important flashpoint of the dispute between Taipei and Beijing for international recognition. Nine out of the fifteen nations that officially recognise Taiwan are either in the Americas or the Caribbean. However, this number is swiftly decreasing as Beijing expands its influence far beyond its traditional sphere of influence. In 2018 alone it managed to successfully persuade both El Salvador and the Dominican Republic to relinquish their recognition of Taiwan and to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. The loss of the Dominican Republic was particularly unexpected for Taipei, as the country had recently signed a Free Trade Agreement with along with Honduras, another historically Taipei-aligned nation in the region.


The strategy employed by Beijing is not all too different from the one used in Africa and other regions composed mostly by developing nations, characterised by the providence of credits and funding for big infrastructure projects and, in some cases, electoral campaigns, all in exchange for political alignment in international matters that benefit Beijing. Unable to financially compete in this ally auction, Taipei has repeatedly accused its continental rival of buying allies.


Beijing’s growing influence in Latin America can be interpreted as detrimental to the United States’ historical hegemony in its immediate strategic surrounding achieved through the Monroe Doctrine following the defeat of Spain and the removal of colonial reminiscences in the Americas. During the Cold War, this region was a among the most dynamic in the US-USSR competition and reflexes of this dispute can still be observed today such as in Cuban-US relations and the ongoing interstate conflict in Colombia. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, China seeks not to export an ideology but to acquire through financial means more favourable trade conditions and political alignment with the potential to severely undermine US economic interests in the region.


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently voiced a strong opposition towards Panama’s growing cooperation with China following its decision to relinquish diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of Beijing, a monumental decision that is speculated to transform Panama into one of the flashpoints of the ongoing Trade War between the US and China. Panama was the first in a series of Central American nations to forgo Taipei in favour of Beijing and arguably the most relevant nation to do so due to its geostrategic importance as a gateway to trade routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic. US concerns over China’s expanding presence in the region are of course not limited to the potential negative effects this might bring in its ability to economically engage in highly favourable trade terms with its neighbours, it also relates to its grand strategy in Asia-Pacific. Although the US itself no longer recognises Taiwan’s legitimacy over China Proper or its sovereignty, it relies on foreign recognition of Taipei to support its stance on the Taiwan Strait stand-off.


For the moment, the remaining continental American nations that continue to maintain official diplomatic relations with Taipei are: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay. Island nations in the Caribbean and adjacent regions include Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Haiti. It is however highly likely that this list will shortly shorten. Nonetheless, for some, relations with Taipei continue to pay off as is the case with Paraguay, Guatemala and Honduras, three nations that receive large economic benefits from their historical alignment with Taiwan. For Beijing, the benefits of achieving recognition from such small nations have more of a symbolical rather than practical value. For Taipei on the other hand, the few remaining official diplomatic relations are far more valuable and their preservation remains a priority in their foreign policy.


However, with the substantial amount of ongoing domestic developments in China including the Hong Kong protests, the upcoming elections in Taiwan and recent revelations of Beijing’s intelligence efforts to interfere with and influence such events in order to achieve more favourable outcomes, it is highly likely that the CCP will continue to drive other Latin American nations to take its side and relinquish their recognition of Taipei.


Arthur Mac Dowell is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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