Diplomacy, a history between nations
On August the 21st of 2018, the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Central American nation of El Salvador. This marked another important step for Chinese diplomacy in Central America, as yet another country abandoned diplomatic ties with the Republic of China, after Costa Rica did the same back in 2007, followed by Panama in 2017.
The blow to Taiwanese diplomacy cannot be overstated; Central America was historically considered a strongly pro Taiwanese region, in fact at the turn of the century the entire isthmus held diplomatic ties with the ROC, largely approved of by certain elements within the countries themselves as well as within the United States.
El Salvador was said to refuse to continue diplomatic relations with Taipei unless a new $4 billion port development project was approved and sponsored. This caused uproar in Taiwan and was seen as a sort of diplomatic blackmail, but perhaps more importantly, it was seen as a sign that Taiwan’s historical “checkbook diplomacy” in the region had reached the end of the line. El Salvador itself has profoundly denied reports that the lack of investment was the source of the diplomatic dispute, instead it was argued that it made economic sense due to (PRC) China’s relevant position and power in world economic terms.
For years Taiwan’s substantial economic aid had been an important component of their diplomatic ties in Central America. However recent developments had profoundly tarnished Taiwan’s prestige in El Salvador itself.
Former President Francisco Flores was under investigation for alleged misuse of Taiwanese aid funds after the 2001 earthquake, therefore many people came to see Taiwan as a potential sponsor-perhaps unwillingly or unknowingly-of corruption. Flores died in 2016, when the process was still ongoing, but Taiwan’s reputation in the country received a deadly blow.
As expected, Washington’s reaction was far from approving. The United States had traditionally seen El Salvador as a close ally in the region, strongly opposing China and loyally supporting Taiwan. Senator Marco Rubio was particularly critical of the diplomatic switch, immediately threatening with aid cuts and altogether expulsion from partnerships.
The long term repercussions are still unclear, with a change in government the most likely scenario for the coming Salvadoran elections. Should the right wing ARENA party win back the elections, the newly established friendship might see its first strains. A similar scenario might occur if fellow candidate Bukele manages to win the elections. He has hinted at a reversal of diplomatic ties should that happen. This future uncertainty has led Chinese officials into a state of wariness, so one cannot expect major investments in a country that in a few months time could potentially overturn such a diplomatic milestone.
The general overview might suggest that the diplomatic victory wasn’t all that big, at least not yet. Regardless if there is a reversal or not, the conditions in Central America remain fairly adverse to major Chinese investments. The planned Nicaragua canal failed to see the light of day, and although a major economic blow to the investor’s interest outside the canal was the main reason for it, it is still relevant to mention the stern opposition it faced by some sectors of the Central American country. Guatemala recently reassured Taipei they won’t be following their southern neighbour’s decision either. China has certainly made some major progress in their diplomatic ties in the region, but their beachhead is far from secure and it will take time before the diplomatic efforts might translate into geo strategic ones.