Over the years, Taiwan’s attempts to project itself as a sovereign territory have not yielded satisfactory results, largely due to China’s political and economic influence across a large part of the globe.
Now, with Washington’s support, the self-governing island seems to have earned support from a particular Left-ruled Central American state.
As part of its ‘One China’ policy, Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and wants to annex it, if required, by force. This policy has two notable postulates. Firstly, China has made it clear that any of the Taiwanese government’s attempts to establish its independence will beget a threat of invasion.
Secondly, China’s official stand is that: no nation may conduct official diplomatic relations simultaneously with Beijing and Taipei. One must be chosen over the other.
This part of the ‘One-China’ policy seems to be the main reason why only 14 nations and the Holy See, which operates from Vatican City State, officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation.
In addition to these 15 allies, close to 59 nations along with the European Union, Hong Kong, and Macau, have established unofficial diplomatic relations with the island territory.
Taiwan also retains its status as one of the most important economic players in Asia and one of the world’s top computer technology producers. These political and economic leaps have come about in spite of China’s efforts to stifle Taiwan’s politico-economic growth.
There used to be 16 international allies of Taiwan. The list included 15 nations that recognized Taiwan as a sovereign country: Eswatini, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, and the Vatican City (UN non-member).
Nicaragua severed ties with Taiwan last month and chose to recognize only China, in light of factors such as tensions with the US and Beijing’s efforts to woo the country.
With this, Taiwan is only is left with only 14 allies most of which are small countries in the Pacific, Caribbean, Latin America, and Southern Africa. They often receive heavy foreign aid donations and loans.
Proud to celebrate 199 years of Central American independence with our allies from #Guatemala, #Honduras & #Nicaragua. #Taiwan is deeply grateful for your longstanding support & friendship. Our cooperative efforts to address global challenges have brought us closer together. pic.twitter.com/TbvhNR13Y9
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) September 15, 2020
Even before Nicaragua left to join the China camp, Taiwan had been losing allies. The island territory had lost many allies in the 1960s and 1970s during the decolonization boom. A major blow came when the US also withdrew its position in favor of Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy.
While the US did maintain Taiwan’s recognition for three decades after the Chinese civil war, it changed its tune in 1979. Despite this, Washington has maintained a positive relationship with Taiwan, even offering the island military assistance.
In the 2000s, China began to aggressively poach Taiwan’s last few diplomatic allies as its global power and influence grew. Since Tsai Ing-wen started ruling the island in 2016, China’s aggressive posture has gone up to a new level. Consequently, Taiwan’s allies dwindled from 21 in 2016 to 14 now.
Honduras On Edge
One of the allied nations that Taiwan was on the verge of losing was Honduras. The two regions trace their bilateral relations back to 1941. In the 1980s, the political relationship between Tegucigalpa and Taipei was structured around Cold War geopolitics.
Both the territories shared antipathy towards communism. Both began to liberalize in the 1980s and 1990s, allowing them to create a more nuanced relationship that was primarily based on trade, development assistance for Honduras, and diplomatic support for Taiwan in international fora.
However, recently, this relationship became rocky. In the period preceding Honduras’ 2021 presidential elections, it became quite obvious that popular opposition candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya would most probably win the office.
She had publicly declared that if she came to power, the nation would switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China
Castro’s reasons for leaning towards China were largely financial. Beijing had promised financial assistance, including development assistance for a major port project in the Gulf of Fonseca.
The prospect of access to the massive Chinese market would also open to Hondura through this route. This promise of assistance was especially significant for Honduras’ economy, which is still in tatters.
Honduras moving towards Beijing would be quite a bit of bad news for Taiwan. Not only would this mean further diminishing of Taiwan’s international space, but would also curtail Taipei’s ability to mobilize support in international organizations.
Taiwan cannot compete with China’s economic might despite being quite strong economically. While Taipei has made generous donations to its poorer allies, China has offered multiple gifts, loans, and investments to countries, which have switched diplomatic allegiances in recent years.
A Bug Snub To China?
In November 2021, Castro won the elections and came to power. However, it seems that she and her government made a 180-degree turn from their previous stand on China.
This was most visible in the fact that the incoming Castro administration invited Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to visit for the presidential inauguration earlier in January. It was later announced that Vice President William Lai would be attending instead of Tsai.
Members of the Castro administration suggested that her position on switching recognition was not final and that there would be no change in the status quo.
In The Diplomat, Brian Hioe noted that this shift in position could have been influenced by the desire to avoid upsetting Washington. Not only had both Trump and Biden administrations been strengthening relations with Taiwan, but the US had also suggested that it could take measures against nations that switch recognition to Beijing through the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2020.
US officials had spoken to Castro about maintaining good relations with Taiwan.
US Trade Relations Major Influencer
Trade opportunities with both Taipei and Washington could have been significant in causing Honduras’ about-face. Writing for Nikkei, Kosuke Shimizu noted the economic factors at play.
It is said that Taiwan itself has stepped up efforts to woo Honduras with the island’s economy ministry earlier scrapping off import tariffs on 25 items including meat and dairy from the Central American country. This was labeled “a last-minute demonstration to its incoming president of the benefits of siding with Taipei” by Shimizu.
Yesterday, I met with Honduran leaders to discuss how we can work together on a number of issues. Both countries are committed to strengthening an enduring partnership. pic.twitter.com/IXQGyFkujn
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 29, 2022
Aside from Taiwan’s overtures, Honduran business leaders had been urging Castro to prioritize relations with the US. Business lobbies had displayed their aversion towards the risk of Tegucigalpa losing its largest market, the US.
Data shows that Honduran exports to China amounted to a total of $24.7 million in 2020. This is less than 2% of its exports to the U.S. Meanwhile, China has called out the US for “bullying” Honduras to side with Taiwan.