The diplomatic status of Taiwan has long been a subject of international attention, ever since the island separated itself from the Communist mainland and became the refuge of the remnants of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party (KMT). In the years since, the People’s Republic of China managed to replace Taiwan on the U.N. Security Council, ascend to near-superpower status and all but completely isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Taiwan has evolved from an authoritarian regime under Kai-Shek until 1975 to a genuine constitutional democracy, posing a direct threat to China’s illiberal political structure.
The election of Tsai Ing-wen, the head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in 2016 elevated tensions across the straits as it abrogated the tenuous status quo which had previously existed between Beijing and the KMT-led Taiwan. The DPP’s pro-independence stance, as opposed to the KMT’s more cooperative, pro-Beijing position, angered the mainland and has led to a renewed international attempt to isolate Taiwan by eliminating its few political allies abroad.
While Taiwan does maintain close, albeit unofficial relations with powerful allies such as Japan and the United States, the list of states which officially recognize Taiwan is diminutive, shrinking from 30 in the 1990s to just 17 today. The part of the world with the most condensed support for Taiwan is, oddly enough, in Latin America, which contains nine of the 17 nations officially recognizing Taiwan. Latin America, historically viewed as the backyard of the United States, has therefore had little reason to renege their relations with Taiwan and risk angering their superpower neighbor.
As China continues to expand its international clout through its dollar diplomacy, however, the benefits of supporting Taiwan at the expense of friendly relations with China wane by the day. The most recent casualty of Taiwan’s rapidly deteriorating list of supporters was El Salvador, which announced in August that it was severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan and officially recognizing the government in Beijing as the sole government of China. In his speech announcing the change in policy, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén noted the “extraordinary opportunities” now available to El Salvador following its recognition of Beijing.
It’s very difficult to blame Sánchez Cerén’s decision. China’s economic might and willingness to invest has surpassed that of the United States, and partnership with the Chinese colossus now seems like the best path for many of Latin America’s poverty-stricken countries. Panama, which redacted its recognition for Taiwan last year, is a shining example of the benefits of cooperation, with China spending billions of dollars to improve Panama’s infrastructure, telecommunications and energy production in recent years. Xi Jinping’s pledge in 2015 to invest $250 billion USD in Latin America and the Caribbean region by 2019 provides another incentive for the few remaining supporters of Taiwan in Latin America to acquiesce to China’s demands.
But why should it matter if El Salvador, a tiny state halfway across the globe, officially recognizes Taiwan or not? From a security standpoint, Taiwan is in an enviable position: the geographic separation from mainland China, natural defenses, foreign military support from Japan and the United States and well funded and prepared Taiwanese armed forces should make invasion and occupation of the island all but impossible for the People’s Liberation Army.
For Beijing, however, the intent behind its global campaign to isolate Taiwan is not to make it susceptible to invasion, but delegitimization. Should Taiwan lose all international recognition and cease to be able to maintain relations with foreign entities, Taipei’s claim to sovereignty would be flimsy. Ming-Sung Kuo of the University of Warwick writes that in this case, “Taiwan would become increasingly indistinct from other subnational units with high autonomy governed by a functional government based in a defined territory with a permanent population, opening itself to China’s sovereign claims.” As Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty wanes, China’s influence over the island will wax.
Therefore, while the developments between Latin America and China may seem trivial or peripheral to the Taiwanese situation, they in fact could not be more relevant. The elevation of China on the world stage to superpower status weakens Taiwan’s position considerably, as there is no tangible reason why a foreign entity should continue to support Taiwan when cooperation with China can be so beneficial.