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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In blow to Taiwan, Honduras switches relations to China

Taiwan’s embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last Thursday.

By Amy Chang Chien and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

China has persuaded Honduras to abandon formal ties with Taiwan and establish them with Beijing, a blow to Taipei’s international standing days before the Taiwanese president embarks on a Central American tour that will take her through the United States.

The switch reduced the small number of countries that have ties with Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, and was also a rebuff to Washington’s efforts to shore up Taiwan’s allies in Central America. China’s leaders are trying to isolate Taiwan as they demand that it accept unification, while the United States has been trying to shore up the island’s security and standing.

The allegiance of Honduras may seem a minor matter in the decadeslong standoff between China and Taiwan, but the island’s diplomatic partners are now so few that any abandonment is a serious setback.

The statement Saturday from Honduras’ Foreign Ministry was terse, saying in part, “Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory and, as of today, the government of Honduras has communicated to Taiwan the severance of diplomatic relations, pledging not to have any further official relations or contact with Taiwan.”

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said in a news conference held shortly after Honduras released its statement that “China’s actions to reduce our country’s diplomatic space have severely hurt the feelings of the people of Taiwan and accelerated the contrary direction of cross-Strait relations.” A statement on Twitter from the foreign ministry expressed Taiwan’s “deep regret” at the termination of relations.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also weighed in Sunday. “China highly appreciates this,” its statement read in part, calling the decision of Honduras “a correct choice that conforms to the general trend and conforms to the will of the people.”

While not directly addressing the move away from Taiwan, Honduran government officials had said days earlier that forging closer links with China was vital to improving the country’s ailing economy.

“What we are seeking to establish through the relationship with China is to achieve investment to overcome the challenges facing the country,” Rodolfo Pastor de María y Campos, the Honduran secretary of state, told reporters, noting that it is saddled with more than $20 billion in debt.

China and its investors have already shown interest in the country, financing a hydroelectric dam and exploring rail and port projects in the country.

The establishment of China-Honduras relations comes days before Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, is to visit Belize and Guatemala, Taiwan’s two remaining Latin American allies, to strengthen ties. Tsai is due to depart Taiwan on Wednesday on a trip that will also include stopovers in the United States, which Beijing has protested.

In a post on Facebook, Tsai said that efforts by China to suppress Taiwan’s international participation would not “detract from the will of the people of Taiwan to adhere to freedom and democracy, and to stride forward to the world.”

China demands that countries with which it has diplomatic relations drop their recognition of Taiwan. Since Tsai took office in 2016, it has been peeling away the number of nations that recognize Taiwan as a country, instead of maintaining ties with China. Beijing cut most of the official contacts with Tsai’s government, accusing her of drawing Taiwan further and further away from China’s claims to it.

Only 12 countries and the Holy See now recognize Taiwan, down from 21 in early 2017. The last time that Taiwan lost a diplomatic ally was in 2021, when Nicaragua established diplomatic relations with China.

“It is definitely a huge blow,” said Lu Yeh-chung, a professor of the department of diplomacy of National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Formal diplomatic relations with small countries are still very meaningful for Taiwan’s international status.”

The decision by Honduras is a setback in Washington’s efforts to use its influence in Central America to help prevent China from isolating Taiwan on the global stage. The State Department said that President Joe Biden sent an envoy to Honduras this month, a trip announced after Honduras indicated it would switch ties.

“It’s easy for Washington to become upset when countries like Honduras switch their alliance from Taiwan to Beijing,” said Mitch Hayes, an expert on China’s relations with Latin America and director of Veracity Worldwide, a political risk consulting firm in New York. “But they really need to understand that it is quite a rational strategy for a small country and emergent economies to engage with. We can expect to see more of this in the coming years.”

China and Taiwan have long engaged in what some analysts have described as “checkbook diplomacy” to court countries by providing aid and loans. Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said at the legislature Thursday that Honduras had demanded a “high price” from Taiwan.

Antonio García, the deputy foreign minister of Honduras, confirmed in an interview Friday that since September Honduras had requested $2 billion in loans at least four separate times during meetings and dinners with Taiwanese officials.

“The approach was: ‘Help us, we have to deliver results, it’s going to be a relief. We are not asking you to give us anything for free; we are going to pay you back,’” García said, adding that the loan would have been used to pay off part of the country’s debt.

García said he held two discussions with Taiwanese officials about a loan and each time received a noncommittal response. “They listened attentively and told us that they were going to make the respective consultations with the foreign ministry in Taipei,” he said.

Wu said in Sunday’s news conference that besides the $2 billion loan, Honduras had also asked Taiwan to spend $45 million building a hospital and $300 million building a dam, but later raised those figures to $90 million and $350 million.

In the days before the official break, Taiwan’s foreign ministry had said that it had expressed “serious concern” to Honduras and warned the country about the risk of taking China’s money.

“We want to remind the Honduras government that since it has been plagued by debt problems, don’t drink poison to quench its thirst, or it will fall into China’s debt trap,” Jeff Liu, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s foreign ministry, said in a recent news briefing.

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