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Taiwan China Panama Diplomacy

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Taiwan's isolation grows as Panama recognises Beijing

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Panama's Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sign a joint communique on establishing diplomatic relations, in Beijing, CHina on June 13, 2017. Reuters

Panama and the People’s Republic of China have established diplomatic relations - a blow to Taiwan, since Beijing demands its diplomatic partners accept its "one China" policy that refuses to recognise Taiwan as a separate entity.


Panama's switch of allegiance leaves Taiwan enjoying diplomatic ties with only 20 countries in the world.

They are a handful of Latin American countries - Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Belize -, some Caribbean and Pacific islands, a couple of African countries - Burkina Faso and Swaziland - and the Vatican.

“This behaviour from China, preventing Taiwan from attending the World Health [Organisation], and then the separation of the ties with Panama and also with Sao Tome last December, will further alienate the Taiwanese population from China," says Ketty Chang, vice-president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in Taipei, echoing the indignation of Taiwan's Foreign Ministry.

“This is the general feeling that we have here.”

It is about how you maximize pain
Taiwan and Panama call it quits 13/06/2017 Listen

The deep-rooted antagonism between the island and the mainland goes back to 1949.

After a bloody civil war China was split with the Chinese Communist Party ruling the vast majority of the country.

Taiwan, which remained free of Communist Party control while declaring itself the true Republic of China, has developed from a Kuomintang-ruled dictatorship to a fairly democratic society.

But over the decades more and more countries have recognised Beijing as the only legitimate government, with the US switching sides in 1979. Meanwhile, ties between Beijing and Taipei slowly improved, but both governments continued preying on each others' diplomatic contacts, Beijing being by far the most succesful..

1992 Consensus

In an effort to end the eternal diplomatic squabbling, Taiwan and Beijing reached the "1992 Consensus", named after talks in that year, agreeing that there is one China and leaving open the question of whether its government is in Beijing or Taipei.

But Taiwan's current President T’sai Ing-wen, who assumed office on May 20, 2016, and runs a pro-independence government, denied to acknowledge the "1992 consensus", leading to rumours that Beijing was prepariing renewed assaults on Taipei's diplomatic ties.

2016 promise broken

On a visit to Taiwan in 2016 Panama’s First Lady Lorena Castillo de Varela personally reassured the Taiwanese that Panama would not dump it.

“Our relationship with Taiwan has to be respected,” she told Taiwan’s Minshi Television. "The people of Taiwan and Panama are like brothers and sisiters."

But it took just over a year for her words to be forgotten.

When Sao Tome and Principe severed ties with Taiwan in favor of Beijing in December, the writing was on the wall. Panama was next, and more may follow.

“If Taiwan does not accept the 1992 Consensus, China could go after most of [Taiwan’s diplomatic partners]” says Shi Yinhong, a political scientist with the People’s University in Beijing.

“But the strategy is to do it one at a time, in a series of continued actions over the years if they do not change their position."

The reason why Beijing doesn’t go after Taiwan’s remaining, meagre stock of diplomatic ties in one go is purely tactical, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute of the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.

“It is about how you maximize pain,” he says.

“It is a good, old Machiavellian device. If you are going to announce the news that you have to suffer the consequences, you stretch it out for as long as you possibly could and maximize the pain or embarrassment that it will inflict.”

There is not much Taiwan can do. Answering public demands, the current pro-independence government is not likely to recognize the "1992 Consensus" any time soon and the next elections are only in 2020. The island is still protected by the Taiwan Relations Act, a US law that says Washington may protect the island from a possible attack by the mainland.

But it cannot be effectively protected against its increasing isolation.