Panama has severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of recognizing China, the latest in a series of developments adding to the island’s isolation on the world stage and raising questions about waning American influence under President Trump.
Panama’s decision handed Beijing a diplomatic victory at a time when Mr. Trump, in hopes of securing cooperation on issues like trade and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, has retreated from the confrontational stances he took toward China as a candidate.
Mr. Trump’s marked warming toward China since he became president — after a rocky start that included a phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen — has created a diplomatic vacuum in some regions of the world. That has, in turn, made it even harder for countries like Panama to resist political and economic enticements from China, according to analysts.
Only 19 countries and the Vatican now recognize Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China. Several of those countries are in Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the decision by Panama, announced on Monday, appeared to put those relationships in doubt.
The development was a major diplomatic setback for Taiwan. Ms. Tsai visited Panama last summer, shortly after taking office, for the opening of an expanded Panama Canal. The first ship to sail through the expanded canal was a Chinese one.
In January, Ms. Tsai returned to the region to attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. She also made stops in Guatemala and Honduras, during a trip that was presented domestically as shoring up Taiwan’s alliances in Central America.
China believes it is now “in the driver’s seat with regard to cross-strait relations, if not indeed regional foreign policy,” Patrick M. Cronin, an expert on Asia-Pacific security at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said in an email.
“China wants President Trump and President Tsai alike to think Taiwan’s future will be determined in Beijing,” he added.
China refuses to have diplomatic ties with countries that officially recognize Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory and has threatened to annex by force, if necessary. Since 1945, Taiwan has been ruled by the Republic of China government, which lost the Chinese civil war and fled the mainland in 1949.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “indignation and regret” at Panama’s decision. It said that in addition to withdrawing its diplomatic mission, it would cease all bilateral cooperation and aid.
China, by contrast, celebrated the switch.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, met in Beijing on Tuesday with his Panamanian counterpart, Isabel de Saint Malo, who pledged cooperation on a range of issues, such as investments and marine cooperation.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the establishment of ties with Panama had been done “in accordance with the interests and wishes of the peoples of both countries” and that the two governments “agree to mutually respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Panama is the second country to end ties with Taiwan since Mr. Trump’s election in November. In December, the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe switched recognition in a move that signaled the resumption of China’s poaching of Taiwan’s allies after a moratorium under Ms. Tsai’s China-friendly predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.
Panama “was at the top of the list” of Taiwan’s most important remaining diplomatic allies, said Ross Feingold, a senior adviser in Taipei at D.C. International Advisory.
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Source: New York Times