Taiwan taking precautions after Costa Rica severs ties

Taipei fears that the South American country's choice to opt with China may signal further isolation.

Taiwan FM Huang 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
Taiwan FM Huang 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Taiwan's foreign minister ordered Thursday that 'extreme precautions' be taken to hold on to the island's allies in Latin America, after Costa Rica switched diplomatic relations to political rival China, further isolating the Taipei government. Underlining the sense of crisis in the Taiwanese capital, Foreign Minister James Huang raised Taiwan's two great diplomatic setbacks of the past 58 years - the loss of its seat at the United Nations in 1971, and the pullout of the American Embassy in 1979 - in confirming the Costa Rican decision. Still, Huang said he was confident that Taiwan would weather the storm. "The more we are beaten down, the braver we get," he said. Costa Rica's switch leaves Taiwan with 24 diplomatic partners. The pervasive fear on this democratic island of 23 million people is that its remaining partners in Latin America will now follow the Costa Rican lead, leaving it to count on tiny countries like Palau and St. Lucia to bolster its claims of international legitimacy. Self-governing Taiwan and Communist China split amid civil war in 1949, spawning a nearly 60-year rivalry. In the battle to win the diplomatic allegiance of countries around the world, the two sides routinely offer generous grants and other inducements to poor nations. Huang referred bitterly to this financial largesse, saying China had offered Costa Rica "an astronomical figure" to ditch Taipei. He did not specify what it was. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias acknowledged that the decision to go with Beijing was related to Costa Rica's desire to bolster its economy. "We are looking to strengthen the commercial ties and attract investment," Arias said. "China is the most successful emerging economy in the world and soon it will be the second strongest economy in the world after the United States." In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman welcomed the establishment of ties with Costa Rica. Jiang Yu also urged other allies of Taiwan in Latin America to end their relationships with the island. "The establishment of diplomatic ties is in the interest of the two countries and people," she said at a regular news conference. "It has paved the way for friendly and beneficial cooperation between the two sides." Huang said he had ordered Taiwanese embassies in Latin America to guard against further Chinese inroads. "I've asked our embassies to take extreme precautions against any further pressure by the Chinese communists," he said. Huang did not elaborate on what the embassies would do but Vice President Annette Lu announced she would travel to Paraguay in July to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with that Latin American country _ a move she tied directly to the Costa Rican move. "Now we have to step up our diplomatic work," she said. Analyst Andrew Yang of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies said the Costa Rican action was a huge blow to Taiwan's international standing - something that would likely create a chain reaction among at least a portion of its seven remaining Latin American allies. "Probably Nicaragua and Panama are next and then maybe Paraguay," he said. On the domestic political front, Yang said the Costa Rican defection could help the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the 2008 presidential election because it favors carving out a distinct Taiwanese identity, separate from China. Nationalists, on the other hand, maintain that Taiwanese are culturally Chinese, and support eventual unification with the mainland. "People will probably come up with a more nationalistic emotion in opposing China," Yang said. Taiwanese financial analysts saw little direct fallout from the Costa Rican move, saying that neither the island's massive external trade nor its burgeoning commercial ties with China - which persist despite the political tensions between them - would be affected. "Costa Rica only accounts for a very small portion of overall trading volume," said Citibank's Renee Chen. The Costa Rican move away from Taiwan followed last month's decision by the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia to switch relations from Beijing to Taipei _ a rare Taiwanese triumph in a tit for tat struggle that in recent years has seen the Taiwanese lose the allegiance of countries like Senegal and Chad. It also followed an emergency meeting on May 25 held in the Central American country of Belize between Huang and diplomats from five countries in the region - including Costa Rica. Huang called the meeting to try and shore up Taiwan's diplomatic standing in the area after Costa Rica voted against holding a discussion on proposed Taiwanese membership in the World Health Organization and two other Taiwanese allies from the region failed to take part in the ballot. Huang said he had gone to President Chen Shui-bian and offered to resign to take responsibility for the Costa Rican defection. Chen later rejected the offer. With the Costa Rican defection, the number of Taiwan's diplomatic allies has now fallen to 24 - most of them small and impoverished nations in the Caribbean, Africa and the south Pacific. By contrast China has diplomatic relations with about 170 countries. That represents a sharp turn turnaround from the high watermark of Taiwan's diplomatic position in 1967, when it had full relations with 67 countries, including the United States and much of Western Europe. Things started to go badly for it in 1971, when the United Nations shifted its recognition from Taipei to Beijing. By 1979 - when the United States pulled its embassy out of the Taiwanese capital - only 22 countries were left. In addition to the 24 states that recognize Taipei, dozens of others - including the United States, Japan and Great Britain - maintain quasi-official offices - part of a diplomatic sleight of hand to honor Beijing's condition that full diplomatic recognition be accorded to only one of the rivals.