The Senate of Paraguay voted to maintain diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. But long-term prospects do not look bright.
Antonio C. Hsiang
Paraguay was one of the first countries to receive a donation of 100,000 face masks from Taiwan. But on April 17, the Paraguayan Senate held a vote on whether to change diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Although the Senate voted 25 to 16 against the proposal, pressures within Paraguay to realign are nonetheless increasing.
As the only country in South America that recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty, Paraguay may trigger a diplomatic avalanche of withdrawals from Taiwan if it switches allegiance from Taipei to Beijing.
In August 2018, Tsai Ing-wen attended the inauguration of Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benitez. The trip was important because Taiwan had lost four allies since Tsai took office in 2016.
China’s diplomatic overtures to Latin America and the Caribbean promise infrastructure and telecommunications investment as a part of the global expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, Panama broke ties with Taiwan in 2017 and became the first country in the region to sign a bilateral Belt and Road Cooperation Agreement with China.
As Panama’s former President Juan Carlos Varela said last year, the BRI is “all about connectivity, and Panama is one of the most connected countries in the region.” He argued that his country saw a “big opportunity” in the BRI.
Previously, Latin America was more hesitant to engage with China out of fear of angering the United States. But the U.S. has not been the same trustworthy and steadfast partner to Latin American governments under the current leadership, according to Margaret Myers, the director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.
Paraguay may stand to benefit economically from leaving Taiwan, despite its long-term friendly relations, for access to Chinese aid and credit.
Meanwhile, top Taiwanese officials continue to espouse the rhetoric of independence. Vice President-elect William Lai Ching-te declaring himself a “political worker for Taiwan independence.” He describes his approach towards independence as pragmatic and supports changing the official name of the Republic of China eventually. There is a contradiction in asking countries to formally recognize the Republic of China while at the same time expressing a desire for independence.
Some scholars and senior members within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party have even argued that diplomatic allies are useless to Taiwan. This view holds that instead of spending millions on retaining official recognition from these countries, most of which are heavily reliant on foreign aid, losing a tolerable number of diplomatic allies is acceptable.
This cavalier attitude towards Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic alliances threatens to swing the Paraguayan Senate to China.
President Tsai emphasized in her acceptance speech on January 11 that her commitment to peaceful, stable cross-strait relations remains unchanged. However, the Taiwanese government should be wary of overplaying its Covid-19 diplomacy. As the United States calls to suspend funding for WHO, Taiwan is more at the mercy of China in participating in international bodies.
In her upcoming inaugural speech on May 20, President Tsai should convince Taiwanese people that she is also capable of preventing a diplomatic avalanche.