Panic in Taiwanese politics and anger with Chinese President Xi Jinping are threatening to undermine Taiwan’s alliances with both the United States and its old ally, Nicaragua.
After three months of negotiations, Nicaragua on Friday announced it would close its diplomatic mission in Taipei and transfer its status to the Republic of China, the name officially given to Taiwan by the Communist Party in 1949 after it defeated the Nationalists.
“After careful deliberation, the Nicaragua government decided to definitively conclude the diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China … a move that better aligns Nicaragua’s foreign policy with that of China,” Nicaragua’s vice president, Rosario Murillo, told reporters at a news conference in Managua.
The change, she said, came after “many difficult, long and difficult moments.”
Nicaragua became the 11th country to cut ties with Taiwan this year after the Taiwanese government failed to pressure South Korea to drop its official diplomatic ties with the mainland. After months of lobbying, South Korea announced last week that it would maintain its ties with Taiwan.
Taiwan’s government is seeking new friends in Latin America as tensions rise in mainland China.
After South Korea, Taipei saw the potential for leverage in courting Nicaragua, which is a traditional ally of the United States. As part of Taiwan’s diplomatic pursuits, both the United States and Taiwan on Friday warned that Beijing had pressured Nicaragua to close its diplomatic representation.
Beijing uses Taiwan as a bargaining chip with Washington to get Washington to pressure Japan and other U.S. allies to abandon their independent policies and embrace China. Beijing says it will not allow Taiwan to enjoy diplomatic recognition beyond a handful of nations, and will recognize countries only if they agree to recognize China’s version of the old Chinese empire.
It doesn’t work like that for Nicaraguans. They view Taiwan as a valued ally because it is just 90 miles away from the Panama Canal, which serves as the world’s most important trade route.
Nicaragua was the last country in Latin America to maintain ties with Taiwan. Such independence helped the Nationalists win Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s, and it remained part of Taiwan until 1986.
“It wasn’t easy, and there were long, difficult negotiations,” Murillo said.
Nicaragua’s decision to pull its diplomatic mission in Taipei is an important measure of how Taiwan’s diplomatic operations are not just struggling to remain relevant but are disappearing completely.
Five years ago, Washington had 24 official diplomatic missions in China, 20 of which were in the Peoples Republic of China, where the government governs all of China except Taiwan.
Now, Taipei has only seven diplomatic missions in the PRC and about a dozen in countries like Bhutan and Korea that rely on Beijing for trade but don’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state.
On Saturday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said he was still expecting the administration of President Xi Jinping to agree to an informal understanding that China would not pressure countries to back off their ties with Taiwan.
“Just like some countries in Latin America, Taiwan’s island nation wants its diplomatic ties with China to be normal,” Wu said. “Yet China will only consider a permanent one-way traffic from Taiwan to China if Taiwan fails to take a step forward.”
Taiwan’s army has been around for only four years and has tried to establish a standing army, though it is nowhere near sufficient to defend Taiwan’s population of 23 million.
“We don’t know how to fight if we are attacked in Taiwan,” Wu said.