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May 28, 2017

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Is it wise for Beijing to poach allies?

Taiwan's leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, arrived in Honduras Sunday for a closely watched four-nation Central American visit. But (in China at least) there was much more interest in her stopovers in the United States: Houston on the way out and San Francisco on the way home.

President-elect Donald J. Trump's transition team had issued assurances that there would be no contact between them and the Taiwan leader during her transit layovers. China's sensitivity stems from an unprecedented phone call the Taiwan leader made to congratulate Trump on his electoral triumph even though the two sides have no diplomatic relations.

China has made clear that Taiwan will have to pay for such transgressions. A Global Times commentary Jan. 10 trumpeted, "Tsai had a phone call with Trump, but soon Sao Tome and Principe broke ties with Taiwan. It is certain that more countries will do the same."

After Honduras, the Taiwan leader will go to Nicaragua to attend the inauguration of Daniel Ortega, who will begin a new presidential term. At the ceremony, she will have a rare opportunity to meet other foreign leaders.

After that, Tsai is scheduled to visit Guatemala and, finally, El Salvador, before returning to Taiwan via San Francisco.

The four Central American countries represent a significant portion of the 21 countries that still accord diplomatic recognition to Taiwan rather than China.

In 2007, just before Ma Ying-jeou became president, Costa Rica broke relations with Taiwan to establish ties with China.

Then, for the eight years of Ma's presidency, there was an unspoken "diplomatic truce" in which China refrained from grabbing Taiwan's diplomatic allies.

Thus, in 2008 when Paraguay indicated interest in relations, Beijing was unresponsive.

Similarly, in 2009, when Mauricio Funes won the presidential election in El Salvador, he was quoted as saying that he would consider establishing relations with China and severing ties with Taiwan.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman rather pointedly responded that "despite the absence of diplomatic ties, the Chinese people have friendly feelings towards the Salvadoran people, and we are willing to carry out friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas with Salvador." The emphasis was on developing friendly exchanges in the absence of diplomatic relations.

But now that Tsai Ing-wen is president, the diplomatic truce is over. Tsai will have to be sensitive to signs that other countries will follow Sao Tome's example. This is especially the case since Taiwan is in no position to compete with China in terms of checkbook diplomacy.

El Salvador and other countries must be reassessing whether they should stick with Taiwan or switch to China.

A commentary in the official China Daily newspaper on Jan. 5 referred to the decision by the Sao Tome and added darkly, "The same could happen with Taiwan's remaining 21 'allies.'"

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