Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CENTRAL AMERICA: Taiwan on the Prowl for Diplomatic Support

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Aug 24 2007 (IPS) - The president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, is visiting Central America, fearful of losing more allies in the region, as occurred with Costa Rica which broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to reestablish them with China.

Chen’s visit, which brought him to El Salvador this Friday, reflects Taiwan’s interest in reinforcing the ties it has had for decades with this region, which are now beginning to fray as trade with China increases, analysts say.

“Their diplomatic moves show the anxiety (of the Taiwanese) after Costa Rica’s volte-face” on Jun. 6, political scientist and expert on international politics Napoleón Campos told IPS.

Central American and many Caribbean countries are, in fact, almost the last international backers that Taiwan, regarded by China as a renegade province, has had over the past two decades, he said.

Central American countries have unconditionally supported Taiwan in its bids to recover an official seat at the United Nations. It was ousted from the U.N. in 1971 when China won recognition.

Its scant international recognition is used as an argument by Beijing to recover the island, lost in 1949 when the leaders of the nationalist Kuomintang party fled the Chinese mainland after their defeat by the Communist forces, and established a government on Taiwan.

Taiwan has observer status at the Central American Integration System (SICA) and is an extra-regional partner of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE).

Analysts say that this region of the Americas has become a real chessboard for the two Asian countries, which are battling for something more than trade partners. Diplomatic support and recognition is the ultimate aim.

A source at the Honduran foreign ministry told IPS that the country “maintains friendly and supportive relations with Taiwan and will give it its backing for re-entering the U.N.” when the issue comes up for discussion in September, but did not deny press reports about possible changes in Taiwanese-Honduran relations in future.

The establishment of trade ties between Honduras and China at the same time that these reports have emerged is apparently not just a coincidence. Similar reports have emerged in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, all of which express support for Taiwan but have their eyes on Asia’s giant.

Costa Rica broke off relations abruptly with Taiwan in early June, after 63 years of economic and diplomatic cooperation. Now, China is its strategic partner, with trade between them having climbed from 630 million dollars in 2004 to 1.7 billion dollars in 2006.

Illustrating the new close relationship, and while the Taiwanese president was in the same region, this week a Chinese delegation headed by deputy Trade Minister Ma Xiuhong visited Costa Rica to mark the resumption of bilateral relations, and to ask the other Central American countries to consider resuming diplomatic ties with Beijing.

The Guatemalan fast food company Pollo Campero has already started negotiations to open a chain of restaurants in China.

And members of the business community in El Salvador have advocated establishing trade relations with China, although they want to keep trading with Taiwan as well.

Chen’s tour, which is due to end early next week in Nicaragua, is “to reinforce the fraternal links we have had for decades with our sister countries (in Central America),” Marcos Chan, press officer for the Taiwanese embassy in San Salvador, told IPS, after denying that Taiwan is worried by San José’s decision.

Chan did, however, comment on Costa Rica. “We very much regret the decision taken by President (Oscar) Arias, because we have provided a great many aid projects for the country to develop its information technology industry and education,” he said in impeccable Spanish.

President Chen arrived in Honduras on Tuesday, and met with his Honduran counterpart Manuel Zelaya. On Thursday he attended a joint meeting of Presidents Antonio Saca of El Salvador and Oscar Berger of Guatemala, Vice Presidents Jaime Morales of Nicaragua and Rubén Arosamena of Panama, the deputy foreign minister of the Dominican Republic, Clara Quiñónez, and the prime minister of Belize, Said Musa.

The Central American government representatives thanked Taiwan for its cooperation with their efforts towards economic and social development, according to the communiqué issued after the meeting which was held in Zambrano, about 40 kilometres from the Honduran capital.

Sources consulted by IPS were, however, intrigued at the sending of second-level representatives to the meeting by Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic, and recalled that Costa Rica had done the same thing in May at the meeting of foreign ministers in Belize, when the fate of Taiwanese-Costa Rican relations was already decided.

Chen will remain in El Salvador until Sunday, although he is only scheduled to have one private meeting with Saca lasting no more than an hour, according to the agenda announced by the Salvadoran foreign ministry. He will also speak with members of Congress and the Supreme Court.

Taiwan and El Salvador have enjoyed trading links for several years, and the flow of Taiwanese aid has been uninterrupted.

Taiwan donated six million dollars to El Salvador for reconstruction work after the devastating earthquakes of January and February 2001, and 300,000 dollars to help the country recover from tropical storm Stan in 2005.

The embassy of Taiwan in San Salvador provided information indicating that Salvadoran exports to Taiwan totalled 2.4 million dollars in 2003, and nearly nine million dollars in 2006. Investments by Taiwanese companies in El Salvador amount to 80 million dollars.

Between 2000 and 2004, the volume of trade between Taiwan and the Central American and Caribbean region amounted to 3.3 billion dollars, according to the Salvadoran foreign ministry.

In spite of the high volume of trade with Taiwan, political scientist Campos predicts that China’s astuteness and historical circumstances will prevail.

“The Chinese mentality is much more complex, patient, intelligent and open than we Central Americans imagine,” he said.

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