Honduras says plans to open diplomatic relations with China

Diplomatic ties with Taiwan have become a flashpoint in Central America, where Beijing is looking to deepen links.

Honduras President Xiomara Castro talking to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a military event. He is in ceremonial uniform and stooping slightly to hear her. She is wearing a burgundy jacket and sunglasses.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro said she was supportive of the switch while she was on the campaign trail [File: Fredy Rodriguez/Reuters]

Honduras President Xiomara Castro has said she wants her country to open official diplomatic ties with China, in a move that would end its official relationship with the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

Castro, who said during her election campaign in 2021 that she would switch ties to Beijing before later backtracking, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night that she had instructed her foreign minister to begin the process of recognising the People’s Republic of China.

The move was “a sign of my determination to comply with the Government Plan and expand borders freely,” she wrote.

“We have to look at things very pragmatically and seek the best benefit for the Honduran people,” Honduran Foreign Minister Eduardo Reina later told local television, according to the Reuters news agency.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said it had expressed serious concern to the Honduran government and urged it to consider its decision carefully and not “fall into China’s trap.”

While Xiomara did not mention Taiwan in her tweet, China does not allow countries to maintain formal relations with Taipei if they recognise Beijing.

Analysts said Honduras move was not unexpected given Xiomara’s campaign comments and recent discussions with China about financial assistance – in February Reina announced Beijing would provide the funding for another dam along the Patuka River.

“I think we are somewhat prepared, so I don’t think it’s going to be a big issue,” Yao-yuan Yeh, the director of the Taiwan and East Asia Studies Programme at the University of St Thomas in Texas told Al Jazeera. “But it could cause the public in Taiwan to have a little panic since we’ve been abandoned by another country again.”

China has been trying to deepen links with Taipei’s remaining allies since Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president of Taiwan in 2016. Several countries, including the Solomon Islands, have made the switch.

In Central America, a region that the United States has long seen as within its sphere of influence, Nicaragua broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2021. If Honduras does switch, only Belize and Guatemala will formally recognise Taiwan, which will be left with just 13 formal diplomatic allies around the world, compared with 22 when Tsai took office.

“Central American recognition of Taiwan is a legacy of the Cold War,” Bruno Binetti, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and an expert in China relations in Latin America, told Al Jazeera in emailed comments. “Much has changed since then, including China’s spectacular economic rise. Decades ago Taiwan was actually a more appealing economic partner than China. That’s ancient history, Taiwan just can’t compete with China’s huge market.”

‘Borrowed time’

Tsai, viewed by Beijing as a ‘separatist’, has previously accused China of ‘dollar diplomacy‘ over the issue of diplomatic recognition, which has also seen Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), excluded from international bodies such as the World Health Assembly and International Civil Aviation Organisation.

“When it comes to diplomatic allies, it seems Taiwan is on borrowed time,” said Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation in Taipei. “Since 2016, this has been China’s mission to shrink Taiwan’s international space and punish Taiwan.”

The ROC government was established in Taipei at the end of China’s civil war in 1949 when the Communists established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. The government in Beijing claims democratic Taiwan as its own territory, with no right to state-to-state ties, and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its goals.

Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, noted that China had long been cultivating closer relationships with countries in Central America.

“Castro backed off on the idea of dropping Taiwan after she took office. In that sense, this decision is surprising. But maybe it shouldn’t be,” Freeman said in an email. “For years, China has been expanding its footprint in Central America, while U.S. administrations – Republican and Democrat – have worked intensively with governments in the region on migration, but only sporadically on other issues. Now, the bill is coming due for the lack of high-level attention.”

The manoeuvring for influence is taking place amid rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, and a deterioration in the relationship between the US and China.

As Pacific nations have peeled away from Taiwan, and after the Solomon Islands signed a security pact with China, the US has stepped up engagement in the region.

US President Joe Biden last year hosted Pacific leaders at the White House for what was billed as an unprecedented summit that ended with generous US pledges of assistance and a commitment to tackling climate change — an existential issue for many Pacific states. Last month, the US reopened its embassy in Solomon Islands, which had been closed in 1993.

China’s interest in the region has also raised concern in nearby Australia and New Zealand, as well as within Pacific nations.

Last week, the outgoing leader of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), one of the world’s tiniest countries, accused China of bribing officials and making “direct threats” against his personal safety in relation to its efforts to secure control of Taiwan.

Panuelo, who will leave office in May, said China was trying to interfere in the FSM to ensure that the country would align with Beijing, or remain neutral, in the event of a war over Taiwan.

The FSM, which is home to fewer than 115,000 people and located about 2,900km (1,800 miles) northeast of Australia, is independent but receives financial assistance and defence guarantees from the US under a so-called compact of free association.

Professor Enrique Dussel Peters, of the Graduate School of Economics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the switch from Taiwan to China was – diplomatically – not a surprise.

Many countries in Latin America, particularly in the Caribbean and Central America, previously had diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but that had shifted substantially in the last few years, including for countries such as Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador and Dominican Republic.

“What is the reason? China becoming the biggest economy in the world and the effective presence of China in LAC [Latin America and the Caribbean] and each of the countries with or without diplomatic relations,” he told Al Jazeera.

With reporting by Erin Hale in Taipei and John Power in Kuala Lumpur.

Source: Al Jazeera