Honduras seeks to establish diplomatic relations with China in blow for Taiwan

In a blow to Taiwan, Honduras is seeking to establish diplomatic relations with rival China – a switch that could also signal the ebbing influence of the United States in central America.

President Xiomara Castro has instructed her foreign affairs minister to start negotiations with Beijing and expressed her intention to “expand frontiers freely in concert with the nations of the world”.

The move will leave Taiwan fully recognised by only 13 countries, and comes as China spends billions overseas to win influence and support for its One China policy.

Countries that have diplomatic relations with China are not allowed to maintain official ties with Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory with no right to state-to-state ties. Taiwan strongly disputes this position.

Honduras’s decision is worrying for Taiwan, which is facing increased aggression from China, especially after Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August last year.

It had already lost the support of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands to Beijing in 2019.

In Latin America, only Belize and Paraguay have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, with most of Taiwan’s allies being small, poor island nations in the Caribbean and South Pacific. Paraguay might also switch if the opposition wins presidential elections next month, and Nicaragua switched in December 2021.

Taiwan supplies its remaining allies with agricultural experts, vocational training programmes and other forms of economic aid. But budgetary restraints limit the island nation’s ability to spend large amounts on infrastructure development as China does.

Taiwan maintains robust informal ties with more than 100 countries, despite China’s campaign of isolation. But the Asian giant’s diplomatic offensive has begun to raise concerns in the US as its rivalry with Beijing sharpens.

The Biden administration has proposed spending billions to keep three Pacific countries in the US orbit, fearing China could use its gains in the Pacific to threaten US security.

Alarmed by such Chinese gains, the Biden administration is proposing to spend billions to keep three Pacific countries – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – in the US orbit.

Ms Castro’s statement was welcomed by China but Taipei’s ministry of foreign affairs said it had “expressed serious concerns to the Honduran government”.

“Our country has made it clear to Honduras many times that Taiwan is a sincere and reliable cooperative partner to our allies. Honduras is requested to consider carefully and not fall into China’s trap or make wrong decisions that damage the long-term friendship between Taiwan and Honduras,” it said.

Residents wearing face masks wait to cross a traffic intersection near a large screen promoting the Chinese People's Liberation Army Airforce (AP)
Residents wearing face masks wait to cross a traffic intersection near a large screen promoting the Chinese People's Liberation Army Airforce (AP)

It is not clear what has prompted Honduras’s government to change its mind, but China, which is building a massive dam in the country, generally uses trade and investment as incentives for switching ties, as it has done successfully with Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, most recently, South Pacific nations such as the Solomon Islands.

Earlier this month, Micronesian president David Panuelo accused China of “political warfare” in a letter to other national leaders and discussed switching diplomatic allegiance from China to Taiwan in exchange for $50m to recharge the tiny Pacific island nation’s trust fund.

Panuelo said China had been spying on Micronesia, offering bribes and acting in a threatening manner in an effort to ensure that if it goes to war with Taiwan, Micronesia would be aligned with China, or at least abstain from taking sides.

Additional reporting by agencies