President Tsai Ing-wen is leaving for what could be the most important overseas voyage of her term in office Saturday, heading for four Central-American allies while stopping over in the United States twice.
While leaders of other nations travel all the time, to the extent that domestic television news shows rarely pay attention to which cities they stay in or which personalities they meet, Taiwanese presidents rarely get the chance to visit overseas, due to the country’s limited number of official diplomatic allies and to ceaseless Chinese attempts to prevent such trips.
As a result, the overseas itinerary of a Taiwanese president is certain to be looked at with a microscope for signs of improvement or the opposite.
When the Presidential Office announced the details of Tsai’s trip on Wednesday, it was therefore no surprise that the local media immediately pounced on the fact that it featured face-to-face meetings with three of her hosts, but not with President Daniel Ortega Saavedra of Nicaragua, whose inauguration for a new term functioned as the main reason for the voyage.
The apparent omission added to concern over the future of relations, since the Central-American country had already been named as the next domino likely to fall following last month’s loss of the tiny West African ally Sao Tome and Principe, a former Portuguese colony most Taiwanese had never heard of.
As China has apparently decided that Tsai is going to stick by her principles and refuse to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus,” it is likely moving to throw its weight around even more, both on the diplomatic and the military domain,
Nicaragua is a risk case as Ortega is a leftist president who already cut ties to Taiwan once, in 1985, but under vastly different circumstances. At the time, he was the leader of a revolutionary leftist movement which had just overthrown a U.S.-backed rightwing authoritarian government, while Taiwan was still ruled by Martial Law under, precisely, another U.S.-backed rightwing authoritarian government, led by President Chiang Ching-kuo.
The environment is completely different now, with Taiwan a full-blown democracy interested in international development, and Nicaragua more democratic than it used to be, though still far from perfect, according to international observers.
The key problem in relations between Taiwan and its decreasing number of allies has been money. Especially with the Sao Tome and Principe crisis fresh in mind, the Tsai Administration emphasized it was not interested in conducting dollar diplomacy and was unlikely to respond to demands for money, unless those were well-motivated by reasonable requirements for development projects.
The problem of course is that virtually all of Taiwan’s official allies are poor countries needing many forms of development assistance, with some projects likely to be considered as essential for their economy but others not.
China on the other hand, has turned from a communist centralized dictatorship into an economic powerhouse which has become able to afford to bankroll foreign governments.
Since Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in Central America and its economic plans include building a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans similar to the Panama Canal, it is clear that its government will be looking for a lot of capital which China might be eager to provide.
When Taiwanese reporters pointed out the holes in Tsai’s itinerary in Nicaragua, the Presidential Office responded by emphasizing that she would have a face-to-face meeting with Ortega on the first day of her visit, but that a precise time had not been arranged yet.
In addition to her visit to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Tsai will also be making stopovers in Houston, Texas, and San Francisco, California. Each Taiwanese president traveling to Latin America or the Caribbean has passed through the U.S., where they met politicians, academics and local Taiwanese residents, but this time, attention will be even more focused on whom Tsai meets.
Unlike previous occasions, China actually went as far as demanding that the Obama Administration bar Tsai from stopping over, an extreme and highly unlikely event.
At the origin of this far-fetched demand is Tsai’s December 2 phone call to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, an unprecedented act which deeply upset Beijing and surprised many others, even in Taiwan.
The event has led to unrealistic expectations that Trump might even go further and break more protocol by meeting Tsai face to face. That likelihood has however become remote by the choice of Houston and San Francisco, while Trump of course uses New York City as his base during the transition.
In contrast to past voyages, the Tsai Administration has been extremely careful about letting out too many details about the U.S. stopovers beyond saying they will be based on four vague principles identified as “comfort, safety, convenience and respect.”
Even after Tsai returns home on January 15, Taiwanese diplomats will not be able to sleep peacefully, as China will never cease its attempts at damaging Taiwan’s foreign relations.
On January 20, the new U.S. president will be sworn in, adding another factor of uncertainty, but one that has China more worried than Taiwan.
A trade war could harm Taiwan but on the other side the Trump Administration might be more willing to instigate contacts and sell weapons.
The major fear is that Trump, as a wheeler-dealer involved in entertainment, real estate and casinos, will look at Taiwan and consider the island as a mere bargaining chip in negotiations with Beijing, rather than as a democratic country of 23 million vital to U.S. interests.
Tsai might be about to embark on the key voyage of her presidency. She will be judged on whether she can hold on to Taiwan’s ever-diminishing band of official allies and forge a positive relationship with the incoming Trump Administration important for the next four years.