Tsai visits allies, transits USA
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen departed on January 6 for a nine-day journey to visit Central American allies, including stopovers in Houston and San Francisco. The trip occurred amid heightened tensions with China over Tsai’s congratulatory phone call to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Tsai’s first stop was a transit in Houston, Texas, where she met – despite China’s protests – with Texas Governor Greg Abbot as well as former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Tsai continued on to Honduras on January 9, where she met with President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who reiterated the steadfast relationship between the two nations and called Tsai “the most respected, the favorite daughter of Honduras.” She then continued on to Nicaragua, where she immediately met with President Daniel Ortega for a nearly two-hour meeting, broadcast live on network television, during which Ortega declared Nicaragua’s support for Taiwan’s participation in international bodies.
On January 10 Tsai attended inauguration ceremonies for Ortega’s third consecutive term, and the following day she departed for Guatemala, where she met with President Jimmy Morales and vowed to continue supporting various infrastructure and agriculture projects. After arriving in El Salvador on January 12, Tsai was presented with a medal by president Salvador Sanchez Ceran honoring Taiwan’s commitment to the nation. Tsai then flew to San Francisco on January 13, where she visited several politicians and noteworthy Taiwanese expatriates as well as the international headquarters of Twitter, returning to Taiwan on January 15.
Sao Tome and Principe switches ties to China
Sao Tome and Principe abruptly severed diplomatic relations with Taipei on December 20 to resume ties with Beijing, apparently ending the “diplomatic truce” between Taiwan and China, and leaving Taiwan with formal recognition from just 21 allies. The West African island nation had previously recognized the PRC before switching recognition to the ROC in 1997. Over the past two decades the impoverished nation of less than 200,000 people had received substantial aid from Taiwan, in particular in reducing the incidence of malaria from 50% to 1%. In a statement, Taiwan’s government accused Sao Tome and Principe of “playing both sides of the Taiwan Strait while holding out for the highest bidder” and said that it “condemns this action.” Recently Beijing had been increasing trade ties with Sao Tome and Principe, and has also been involved in a number of high-value development projects. In a sign that Chinese pressure was not being limited to countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Nigeria announced on January 12 that it was requiring the Taiwan trade office in Nigeria to move from the capital, Abuja, to Lagos.
KMT candidates for party chair
At least four major candidates will be competing for chairmanship of the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party. All of them are vowing to restore the standing of the party following its fall from grace in the 2014 local elections and the loss of both the presidency and the Legislative Yuan majority in 2016. Current party chair Hung Hsiu-chu, a former legislator who was removed as the party’s presidential candidate in mid-campaign in 2016 due to her controversial stands on cross-Strait relations, is seeking another term in the post. She is facing competition from former Taipei City mayor Hau Lung-bin, former vice president Wu Den-yih, and Taipei Agricultural Products Marketing Corp. president Han Kuo-yu, who announced his candidacy from behind a stack of cabbages. As of press time, former KMT vice chairman Steve Chan was also considering joining the contest. The KMT has been hit hard by the Ill-gotten Assets legislation that has enabled the government to seize significant KMT-held assets, including the building housing its headquarters, and to freeze the party’s bank accounts, forcing it to take private loans to pay its staff. The election is scheduled for May 20.
Taiwan tracks passage of PRC aircraft carrier
Taiwan scrambled jets and launched warships as China’s sole aircraft carrier entered the Taiwan Strait on January 11 on its way to port in northeast China following training exercises in the South China Sea. Although the Russian-built Liaoning and its accompanying fleet of support vessels never entered Taiwanese waters, it did enter Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, prompting the deployment of Taiwan air and naval resources, including F-16 and IDF fighter jets, P-3C surveillance planes, and Navy frigates to monitor its passage. Taiwanese lawmakers across party lines saw the move as an effort to intimidate Taiwan, although Chinese officials and U.S. and Taiwanese military experts noted that traversing the Taiwan Strait is a far shorter route than making the trip via the Pacific Ocean.
Japan’s trade office gets a name change
Effective January 1, Japan’s organization for overseeing unofficial relations with Taiwan changed its name from the Interchange Association, Japan, to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. The change was explained as a way to more clearly state the purpose of the association. The Taiwan government welcomed the move, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) describing it in a statement as “a positive sign in bilateral relations.” Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner, with exports to Japan totaling US$19.5 billion and imports US$40.6 billion in 2016, according to the Bureau of Foreign Trade (BOFT), and two-way travel reached nearly six million in 2016, according to MOFA. The Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association is based in Tokyo and maintains branches in Taipei and Kaohsiung. China predictably protested the change and called on Japan to uphold the “One China principle.”