Over the next week, an important leader from a widely rejected government will be touring Latin America looking to shore up his country's international legitimacy in the face of increasing pressure and rejection.
Obviously, I'm talking about Taiwanese Foreign Affairs Minister Timothy Yang.
The inaugurations of Presidents Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Otto Perez in Guatemala are an opportunity for Taiwan to send a high-level delegation to Central America and the Caribbean and shore up support in the few remaining countries that continue to recognize its legitimacy as an independent country. Yang began his trip in St. Lucia, which changed its recognition from mainland China to Taiwan in 2006 and has been generously rewarded with infrastructure projects since that time. With concerns that Nicaraguan President Ortega has considered changing recognition and Guatemala is getting a new president whose views on the China/Taiwan issue aren't particularly concrete, this is a serious trip for Taiwan to hold its ground in Central America.
For this reason, the trip may signal a renewed battle after several quiet years. Following the flipped recognitions of St Lucia and Costa Rica, China and Taiwan called an unwritten truce on their checkbook diplomacy in the region. Mainland China has taken a fairly enlightened view that it can still manage some economic and even backroom political relations with the governments that recognize Taiwan. The PRC appears to be building up a soft power sell in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Paraguay over several years rather than trying to force the hard and decisive switch as soon as possible. Taiwan has been happy to not have to actively defend their recognition in a few places remaining in the world where they can travel and have relations. Plus, it gives them an excuse to stop over in the US and Europe for informal discussions, which Yang will be doing on this trip as well. Taiwan does not want to lose that.
Taiwan knows it's tough being a state under international pressure from a much larger power with greater political, economic, and diplomatic leverage. In such a position, a country looks for recognition where they can find it. Taiwan needs the international visits and big photo ops to show the world that they are not universally rejected. They are willing to sign big economic agreements with the few countries willing to host them in exchange for getting support at the United Nations.
Everything written above is not to deny the important contrasts between Taiwan and that other pariah state whose leader is visiting Latin America this week and receiving far more attention (even though the media should treat China-LatAm issues as more important than Iran-LatAm issues, but I digress....). Taiwan is a democracy that is not trying to build a nuclear weapon or back a terrorist group or shut down a major international shipping lane. Its leader isn't a holocaust-denying idiot who has had his soldiers fire upon crowds of peaceful protesters after a rigged election or threatened to wipe out another country if he gets the chance.
But the comparisons are important too. A state rejected by most of the world that has its back against the wall will take allies wherever it can find them. A state that needs support at the UN is going to try to keep as many votes as it can. When it faces certain economic restrictions from most countries, it is going to sign economic deals any place it can. If that happens to mean Nicaragua and Guatemala, even if they are not the biggest or most important countries in the world, then that state is going to make as big of a show of its support for those few allies as it can.
Taiwan's visit, like that of the other pariah this week, is an attempt to maintain the small number of allies it has against the pressure of a bigger opponent and the rejection of the international community. The fact they have to keep returning to the same allies over and over is a sign of international weakness, not strength. It's a tough position to be in. There are only a few options available, and they are making the most of the limited options they have
—James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.