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Taiwan's Latin tests cannot be avoided

President Ma Ying-jeou has long advocated a strategy of "diplomatic truce" with the authoritarian People's Republic of China, but this passive diplomacy will not allow Taipei to avoid all dilemmas and tough decisions in ties with our remaining 23 allies.
This inconvenient truth asserted itself just as Ma embarked Monday on "Lasting Amity" mission to Central America organized around the July 1 inaugural of Panamanian President-elect Ricardo Martinelli of the conservative Democratic Change party.
Even before departure Monday afternoon, Ma's itinerary was shrunk from the original nine-day excursion to three nations to a seven-day sweep to Panama and Nicaragua sandwiched between overnight transits in San Francisco and Honolulu in the wake of Sunday's military coup that overthrew Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya.
Ma's upcoming tour had already been worthy of attention because the three nations on his original itinerary, especially Panama, are arguably the more weighty of Taiwan's diplomatic partners in Central America and because the visit comes at a time of rapid change in the relations between Latin America and the United States, now under Democratic President Barack Hussein Obama. Ma firmly believes that his departure of his restored Kuomintang government from the alleged "fire-setting" diplomacy of former President Chen Shui-bian has ended years of bitter "checkbook diplomacy" contestation with the PRC and maintains his initiative has led Beijing to turn down overtures from several Latin American nations to switch ties.
However, Ma's preoccupation with formal links cannot hide the fact that this passive stance and his outright encouragement of the expansion of commercial contacts has thrown the door open for the expansion of substantive diplomatic and commercial ties between the PRC and 12 of Taiwan's diplomatic partners, including Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras and the asymmetrical erosion of our substantive position. Hence, the "truce" has probably only delayed formal recognition between Beijing and "pro forma" Taiwan allies, such as Paraguay and El Salvador, which will occur eventually at an advantageous time of the PRC's choosing.
Ironically, the KMT government's ideological blinders may also put Taipei behind the change in the regional "power curve" by inhibiting it from sensing new direction of prevailing winds since Obama took office.
An inconvenient coup
The new Democratic president has already departed from the hardline approach of the previous Bush administration by acknowledging "errors" in past U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba and has "normalized" ties with Venezuela despite the continued anti-American rhetoric of fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Naturally, Taipei's "professional diplomats" have chosen this precise time to close our representative offices in both Venezuela and Bolivia.
Moreover, while relations with Panama appear to be fairly stable, Ma will be confronted by a major dilemma in Nicaragua where Ortega is under intense pressure after Washington sliced US$64 million in foreign assistance and the European Union suspended US$70 million in aid in the wake of allegations of fraud by his Sandinista government in mayoral elections last November.
Ortega will escort the Taiwan president to Masatepe to show Ma that the results and importance of the 15 agricultural, renewable energy, agricultural finance and small business development projects with Taipei's International Development Cooperation Fund in hopes of that Taipei will expand or at least not cut its programs.
Ma's repeated refusal of invitations to stay an extra day hints that the KMT government does not want to manifest excessive amity to the Sandinista government, but further slights may well spark reconsideration in Managua on just how useful continued ties with Taipei are. Moreover, the cancelation of Ma's two-day state visit to Honduras will not end the dilemmas posed by the coup to Taipei, despite Ma's assurances that bilateral ties remain firm.
Ironically, the Honduran crisis may be partly a manifestation of the law of unanticipated consequences as Zelaya accelerated his shift the left shortly after Ma informed the Honduran leader, during a flight from Asuncion to Santo Domingo last August, that his policy of cross-strait reconciliation will reverse Taipei's previous opposition of commercial links between its allies and the PRC.
Only days later, Zelaya announced his decision to join the "Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas" (ALBA) fair trade alliance with Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
Thus far, Taipei is one of the few major ally of Honduras to decline official comment on the coup, which has been nearly universally condemnation by the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Taiwan's ultraconservative professional diplomats may well instinctively follow the adage that "silence is golden," but the lack of a call to restore democracy may be perceived as tacit approval in the light of former KMT martial law regime's decades of involvement in helping to prop up numerous corrupt dictators and repressive military regimes, including in Honduras, under the banner of "anti-Communism."
In this case, passivity in the defense of democracy may well be perceived as an unwelcome "surprise" in Washington and the bulk of Latin American democracies.