Tensions between China and the United States are ballooning beyond the ongoing trade war on a new front over El Salvador’s decision to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing, with the White House warning it will “affect the economic health and security of the entire Americas region”.
El Salvador has joined several other Latin American nations in cutting ties with Taipei, as Beijing and Washington continue to vie for greater influence in what is often referred to as America’s “backyard”.
In a rare, strongly worded statement on Friday, the White House said El Salvador’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan was a “grave concern” to the US, and warned the Central American nation it might be “disappointed over the long run” after falling prey to “China’s apparent interference in the domestic politics of a Western hemisphere country”.
“This is a decision that affects not just El Salvador, but also the economic health and security of the entire Americas region,” the White House said. “Around the world, governments are waking up to the fact that China’s economic inducements facilitate economic dependency and domination, not partnership.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang responded by urging countries to respect El Salvador’s sovereign decision, saying its new ties with China were “perfectly justified” and “open and above board”.
“Some countries are making irresponsible remarks about whether this will interfere with El Salvador’s domestic affairs, but I believe it is obvious who is politically interfering in the region,” Lu said.
Taiwan has lost five diplomatic allies since Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became the self-ruled island’s president in May 2016. Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Sao Tome and Principe have all switched their recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the last two years.
The heated exchange between Beijing and Washington comes at a tense time for China-US relations, with the two engaged in an all-out trade war and cross-strait ties at a standstill.
As Beijing ramps up its pressure on Taiwan with military drills near the island and attempts to reduce Taiwan’s standing in the international arena, the White House was keen to deter more countries from switching sides, analysts said.
“The US has felt the need to put the brakes on the number of countries seeking to establish relations with Beijing and cut ties with Taiwan,” Xin Qiang, a specialist on Taiwan at Fudan University in Shanghai, said. “They have already seen Panama and the Dominican Republic – also in the US’ backyard – switch relations. If they do not take some measures, they worry this situation will keep happening.”
Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Washington was becoming increasingly anxious about Taiwan, and its latest use of “threatening language” would serve as veiled coercion against Taiwan’s 17 remaining allies.
“It is a show of American support to Taiwan as well,” he said, coming on top of new provisions in the US National Defence Authorisation Act to bolster Taiwan’s defences. “The whole issue of El Salvador could be regarded by people in Washington, certainly in Taiwan as well, as a major frustration for US-Taiwan relations and for Taiwan’s ruling elites.”
The latest developments have also renewed concerns in Taiwan that other Central American nations such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras will follow El Salvador’s lead.
Rafael Sierra, the Honduran ambassador to Taiwan, cautioned there might be increased pressure now for nations to switch their diplomatic recognition to Beijing.
“Of course it is sad to know that our brother country changed sides, but that is their own decision,” Sierra said. “At this moment, Honduras is stable with Taiwan. But this change creates a big concern in our remaining countries.”
The Guatemalan embassy in Taiwan said it “respects the sovereign decision of the Republic of El Salvador”, and continues to have a friendly relationship with Taiwan’s government. Nicaragua’s embassy in Taiwan and the El Salvadoran presidential office did not respond to requests for comment.
While the latest diplomatic loss could put pressure on Tsai ahead of Taiwan’s November midterm elections, it could also rally the public against Beijing’s perceived bullying of the flourishing democracy, analysts said.
“If more Central American allies switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing, it will further alienate the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s people and prompt anti-China sentiment,” said Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang, former deputy minister of Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council.
He said the White House statement could reflect “disappointment and resentment in the policy realm”, which might lead to greater support for tougher trade measures against China.
Xin said the US had long held the “Taiwan card” to use against China, and could employ it more effectively when cross-strait and Sino-US relations were at a low point.
“I am increasingly pessimistic on Taiwan,” he said. “It is very easy for relations between the three parties to enter into a downward spiral, and for US policies to edge towards China’s red line.”