Editorial: Panama and the fear of dominoes

President Tsai Ing-wen (left) visiting Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela last year. (By Central News Agency)

On June 13, Taiwan lost Panama to see the number of official diplomatic allies drop to 20 for the first time.

The latest ally to desert the island and chose Beijing’s side followed Sao Tome and Principe and the Gambia, inciting fears of a “domino effect” or an “avalanche.” Since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party refused to accept the One China Principle, Beijing seems to have intensified its campaign to try and isolate Taiwan internationally, or at least to try and cause as many problems as possible.

As to Panama, one might store it away as only a small country, with 4 million inhabitants compared to Taiwan’s own 23 million, but it has a symbolic value far above its size or population due to the presence of the Panama Canal and to its sometimes not-so-tasty reputation as a financial center.

While the Latin American country only takes 0.04 percent of Taiwan’s exports, which means a decrease in trade will not hurt much, the troubling fact is that few of the 20 leftover allies for Taiwan can match Panama’s importance, how limited it might be. Most of the island’s remaining “friends” are small, relatively poor countries spread out over the Caribbean, Latin America, the South Pacific and Africa.

Just like Panama, one country that is named by some commentators as the next domino is small, but of significant symbolic value. The Vatican is less than a city, and has no divisions, as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once said, but it holds an enormous significance due to its role as the seat of a world religion.

It should be the least likely to desert Taiwan, since how could it defend dropping a democracy where religious freedom is a fact of life in favor of a communist dictatorship? The switch would be indefensible on religious grounds, and Pope Francis would face accusations of hypocrisy if he dumped the island democracy to open ties with a repressive country which locks up its opponents, including faithful Catholics.

The 19 other allies on the surface all look susceptible to Chinese lures, and none the less than Nicaragua, as the country, under the same president as today, leftist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, did break off diplomatic relations once before. A later rightwing government switched back to Taiwan, and during his second period in power, Ortega has so far done nothing to reverse course.

President Tsai rightly stated in her response to Panama’s break that Taiwan would not resort to the checkbook or dollar diplomacy of the past. With only smaller and poorer allies left, Taipei is in no position to win such a race.

Checkbook diplomacy was relatively easy when Taiwan was still a roaring new tiger economy and China was mired in outdated communist economic principles, but the latter’s reforms from the 1980s have led to a thorough change. It is now China which has pockets deep enough to fund massive aid to Third World nations as well as its own military modernization and expansion.

Taiwan reacted to the latest defeat in a measured but expected manner, scrapping cooperation projects with Panama, closing down its embassy and taking a closer look at the presence of Panamanian students, who might be asked to go home.

Reactions from commentators saw the loss as a symbolic blow, though some said that Taiwanese taxpayers might be better off since their money would not have to be used to fund corrupt governments overseas.

President Tsai described Beijing’s actions as “mistaken thinking and provocations,” accusing China of having upset the bilateral “status quo,” which she had promised to keep since assuming office in May last year.

Indeed, China’s behavior has not stopped at its attempts at luring away allies, since even in countries which have already abandoned official ties with Taiwan, the pressure is mounting.

Just a day after Panama’s switch, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said that five countries were pressuring Taiwan to change the name of its representative offices or face a forced move.

The case in point is Nigeria, one of Africa’s most populous nations and a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Earlier this year, around the time of a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), the government already demanded that Taiwan’s office change its name or be forced to leave the official capital, Abuja. While a crisis was averted at the time, it seems China did not let go so on Tuesday, MOFA announced it was leaving Abuja and would open a new office in Lagos, the African country’s most populous city.

Reports emerged that as should be, Taiwan was not going down without a fight, but would ask Nigeria to move its office out of Taipei City.

Yet, Nigeria is only one of five countries where a similar problem is occurring, according to MOFA officials. Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates or more specifically Dubai, and Ecuador are also demanding name changes and threatening to order Taiwanese offices to move if the demand is not met.

China’s bullying was already clearly on view last month, when Taiwan was kept outside of the World Health Assembly in Geneva despite the support of major nations such as the United States and Germany.

Beijing’s attitude is completely counterproductive, since it is fueling antipathy for any rapprochement or any other conciliatory moves that might pave the way toward the reopening of cross-straits talks. As China is still a communist dictatorship uninterested in public opinion even at home, it is unlikely to understand the consequences of its own shortsighted actions.

It is now up to Taiwan to try and mitigate the effects of China’s bullying, primarily by intensifying relations with countries that matter, such as the United States, Japan, the European Union and India. The Tsai Administration is already moving in that direction, thanks to some help and sympathy in those countries and to its own New Southbound Policy.

While emphasizing common values of democracy, freedom and human rights is unlikely to prevent its current diplomatic allies from following Panama, Taiwan can still underline its role as a pioneer nation in everything from the supply of sophisticated technological consumer products to the introduction of modern values such as same-sex marriage. At the same time, it should reinforce existing links with governments, politicians, academics and business people from major countries, showing them that Taiwan is a competitive, democratic and humane society worth defending against its aggressive neighbor.