BEIJING — Panama has established diplomatic ties with China and broken with Taiwan, as Beijing steps up efforts to isolate Taipei internationally since last year’s election of President Tsai Ing-wen.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced his decision on television Monday evening, saying he was “convinced this is the correct path for our country,” and adding that China constituted 20 percent of the world’s population, was its second-biggest economy and the second-biggest user of the Panama Canal.
In a joint statement, the two countries said they were establishing ambassador-level relations.
“The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that only one China exists in the world, the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all China, and Taiwan forms an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” the statement read.
Panama is the second country to break with Taiwan since Tsai’s election last year, following the small African islands of Sao Tome and Principe.
Taiwan was not invited to the annual assembly of the World Health Organization last month for the first time in eight years, and was also excluded from a global forum of the International Civil Aviation Organization last year. Both moves reportedly came at Beijing’s insistence, as it makes clear its displeasure with Tsai’s reluctance to explicitly endorse the idea that there is only one China, encompassing both the mainland and the island of Taiwan.
China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory, and insists that any country that establishes diplomatic relations with Beijing must cut them with Taipei. It says its own relationship with Taipei is founded on the “1992 consensus” between the two sides that effectively rules out the idea of Taiwan ever gaining independence.
But that was a deal reached by the Kuomintang government in Taiwan, not Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, and while Tsai has indicated she respects the agreement, and insists she wants dialogue and friendly ties with Beijing, she has been reluctant to spell out an explicit endorsement.
In the past China and Taiwan had competed with each other to win diplomatic allies, wooing poorer countries with promises of aid and investment. But they had established an unofficial truce under the previous Kuomintang government, with neither trying aggressively to upset the status quo, experts say.
Former Mexican ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted that he expected the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to follow suit soon. “Big question is, will Vatican ditch Taiwan for Beijing?” he added.
Taiwan’s government said it would not compete with China in what it described as a “diplomatic money game.”
“Our government expresses serious objections and strong condemnation in response to China enticing Panama to cut ties with us, confining our international space and offending the people of Taiwan,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Taiwan’s international isolation was not in the interests of the United States or the rest of the world.
“Taiwan has a great deal to offer the international community ranging from top quality medical services to strong IT talent, and active international NGOs that provide disaster relief to countries in need,” she said, adding that the United States and other countries should find “creative ways” to engage with Taiwan.
Nor are China’s pressure tactics doing anything to help it win hearts and minds in Taiwan, experts say.
“So far the tactic has only succeeded in alienating the Taiwanese public and reinforced notions of separateness,” said J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and chief editor of the Taiwan Sentinel website.
“As long as such efforts do not substantially undermine Taiwan’s ability to function as a sovereign state – and no theft of smallish diplomatic ally will ever achieve this – then I don’t see how or why the Taiwanese would give in to such pressure by deciding to accommodate Beijing,” he said.
A poll released by the Taiwanese government last weekend showed nearly three-quarters of respondents rejected Beijing’s insistence on the one-China principle as a precondition to political ties, while more than 80 percent said China’s efforts to limit Taiwan’s international space hurt their interests, and a similar proportion said China should recognize the existence of the “Republic of China,” as Taiwan officially calls itself.
Cole said Taiwan needs to focus more on developing healthy relations with unofficial allies that are democracies and important economies, and not worry about maintaining official ties with small states which want infrastructure investment Taiwan cannot afford.