Panama Switches Allegiance; Tsai Responds; Experts Weigh-In; Politician Guilty of Vote Buying

Panama Switches Allegiance from Taiwan to China

Panama President Juan Carlos Varela announced on Monday that the Republic of Panama had severed ties with Taiwan and had established diplomatic relations with China instead.

Panama and China announced that Panama now “recognizes that there is only one China in the world” and that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory. Taiwan, which has long spent considerable financial resources supporting the Central American country, immediately ended all cooperation with Panama and has called home its embassy personnel.

Panama’s severing of ties with Taipei follows the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, which ended formal relations with Taiwan on Dec. 20, 2016. Some commentators in Taiwan now fear a “domino effect” as Beijing’s checkbook diplomacy outmatches Taiwan’s efforts to maintain formal relations with its remaining 20 allies – most are cash-strapped developing nations in Latin America, the Pacific Islands and Africa.

The move also follows reports that China has been positioning itself to play a bigger role in Panama, via a series of large infrastructure projects and other investments.

Taiwan now has 20 official diplomatic allies worldwide, most are developing countries across the South Pacific, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. China does not have formal diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan.

Tsai Responds

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen was resolute in response to Panama’s switch, fronting the press in Taipei before releasing a statement and then a series of tweets in English.

Taiwan’s “refusal to engage in a diplomatic bidding war will not change,” she said.

Tsai’s critics say her administration has adopted a less conciliatory attitude toward China than that of the previous administration – namely its refusal to follow the previous government in succumbing to Beijing’s demand to accept so-called “1992 consensus, which means supporting the concept of “one China.”

Coercion and threats will not bring the two sides closer, Tsai said. “China has continued to manipulate the ‘one China’ principle and pressure Taiwan’s international space, threatening the rights of the Taiwanese people,” she said. “But it remains undeniable that the Republic of China is a sovereign country. This is a fact China will never be able to deny.”

Experts Weigh-In

Ross Darrell Feingold is a Taipei-based political risk analyst who advises clients on Taiwan, China and Hong Kong relations. Asked where he believes Taiwan should be allocating its limited resources in the diplomatic space, Feingold says that there is much to be said for maintaining the aid programs received by countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. “Not only does it support the fact that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is a sovereign country, but it also shows that as a developed country Taiwan is willing to aid less fortunate countries throughout the world,” he says.

However, he also noted that the financial cost may not be worth the price paid in either corruption or the publicity that accompanies a sudden loss of recognition given that the aid programs are often part of these “post mortems.” Echoing a widely-held view in Taipei, Feingold says there is also a need to for Taiwan to redouble efforts to strengthen ties with other countries. “Taiwan’s robust relations with the U.S., Japan and E.U. also require investment,” he says. “The number of representative offices outside capitals in the U.S. and E.U. should be expanded, or at least not reduced as reportedly under consideration, so that Taiwan can build friendships beyond capital cities. Trade negotiations with the U.S., E.U. and Japan are stalled over market access issues.”

Last year, Timothy Rich, an assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and an expert on East Asian politics, had a different view when he was interviewed by Taiwan Business TOPICS Magazine. The magazine quoted Rich as saying that it is not the number of diplomatic allies Taiwan has that is most important, but rather that the island-nations “unofficial relations with more powerful countries endure.”

“To be blunt, formal relations with a microstate may be consistent with Taiwan’s claims of sovereignty, but it does little to prevent conflict with China in the future. Unofficial support from countries like the U.S. provide such assurance,” Rich said at the time.

Similarly, Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University, told Taiwan Business TOPICS Magazine that “the importance of the allies is very much in the eye of the beholder.”

“If the people of Taiwan don’t care about maintaining them then they become a much less useful carrot/stick for Beijing,” Nathan said.

Politician Guilty of Vote Buying

A Kuomintang legislator was sentenced to five years and six months in jail after being found guilty of vote-buying during his election campaign early last year, Central News Agency reports.

The guilty verdict came after a first trial on charges that the KMT’s Chien Tung-ming bought votes to help him win one of the three legislative seats up for grabs from among 10 candidates in the nationwide mountain indigenous constituency in January 2016 elections with 25,940 votes.

Prosecutors had charged that Chien had paid 158 his campaign staffers to help him canvass for votes, an accusation which he denies. An investigation was then carried out by the Pingtung County District Prosecutors’ Office in March last year, and it indicted Chien and his staff for having helped him buy votes. However, Chien argued that the money given to these people were merely bonuses during the campaigning period. He can appeal the ruling.