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Will Taiwan endure?

In a major diplomatic victory for Beijing, President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama announced on June 13 that the Central American state had decided to sever its 105 years of formal relations with Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, and to switch diplomatic ties to the People’s Republic of China.

For more than 100 years, the Panama Canal was under the control of the United States. This is, however, no longer the case. Since 1990s, Chinese corporations, reports David Vejil of Philadelphia Trumpet, “have gained control of the majority of the ports and loading bays of the Panama Canal. In May 2016, Panama’s largest port, Margarita Island Port, was purchased by China’s Landbridge Group… Chinese investment in the Central American nation is growing… Taiwan has no chance of matching the investment.”

Panama’s decision to embrace the “One China” policy and switch allegiance to Beijing, write Chris Horton and Steven Myers of New York Times, is “the latest in a series of developments adding to the island’s isolation on the world stage.” In December 2016, Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa, ended its official ties with Taiwan. “Only 19 countries and the Vatican now recognize Taiwan,” according to Horton and Myers, “several of those countries are in Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and the decision by Panama appeared to put those relationships in doubt.”

Diplomatically, Panama “was at the top of the list” of Taipei’s most important remaining allies, says Ross Feingold of D.C. International Advisory, “it is very possible that the remaining countries will switch.” “The weight of China is being felt in many places and not just in Latin America,” Robert Manning of Atlantic Council told Reuters, “the trend line is moving in that direction.”

As Beijing celebrates its diplomatic victory, Taipei strikes back with anger and defiance. In a combative statement, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced, “Coercion and threats will not bring the two sides closer. Instead, they will drive our two peoples apart. On behalf of the 23 million people of Taiwan, I declare that we will never surrender to such intimidation.”

“It is true that for a long period of time, Taiwan’s international situation has been difficult,” continued President Tsai, “It is also true that pressure from the other side of the strait has never stopped. But the less favorable our situation is, the more resolute we must be in upholding our belief in freedom and democracy. We must stand together and ensure that Taiwan’s 23 million citizens continue to determine our own destiny. As president, my greatest responsibility is the protection of our national sovereignty. Greater challenges will only bring greater resolve. We will endure.”

Will Taiwan endure?

Economically, writes Michael Cole of University of Nottingham, “The loss of Panama (and any future ally) carries symbolic, and perhaps psychological, implications, but it does not in any way undermine Taiwan’s ability to function as a sovereign state. In fact, substantial, albeit unofficial, relations with major economies like the United States, the European Union, Japan and the many countries targeted by Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is what underpins Taiwan’s resilience. As long as this international support continues, Taiwan will have no difficulty weathering the loss of small, even if official, allies. None of Taiwan’s official allies, and perhaps no combination thereof, are key to Taiwan’s survival.”

Strategically, Taiwan depends on the United States’ support for its existence.

Some see that America’s support for Taiwan is dwindling. “Panama’s decision handed Beijing a diplomatic victory at a time when Mr. Trump has retreated from the confrontational stances he took toward China as a candidate,” summarized Horton and Myers, “Mr. Trump’s marked warming toward China since he became president has created a diplomatic vacuum in some regions of the world.”

Others disagree. In his speech at the June Asia Security Summit, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Asian defense leaders that the United States “remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it the defense articles necessary.”

What is perhaps even more telling, in a show of support for strengthening the U.S.-Taiwan relations, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific passed, unanimously, the Taiwan Travel Act on June 15 to encourage “visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels of government.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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