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White House slams Beijing, cites ‘grave concern’ after El Salvador cuts diplomatic ties with Taiwan

President Trump speaks during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Aug. 16. Trump prodded China to offer more at the bargaining table in an effort to head off an all-out trade war.
President Trump speaks during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Aug. 16. Trump prodded China to offer more at the bargaining table in an effort to head off an all-out trade war. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)

In another sign of growing tensions with Beijing, the Trump White House issued a sharply worded statement late Thursday condemning El Salvador’s decision to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan and vowed to oppose China’s campaign to intimidate other nations.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the move of “grave concern” to the Trump administration and warned that the United States would reevaluate relations with its Latin American neighbor. She accused China of seeking to influence countries through “economic dependency” that leads to “domination, not partnership.”

“The United States will continue to oppose China’s destabilization of the cross-Strait relationship,” Sanders said of Taiwan, “and political interference in the Western Hemisphere.”

The statement represents a challenge to Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taipei from the international community as it seeks to enforce a “One China” policy, which asserts Taiwan is under its territorial control. The United States does not formally recognize Taiwan’s government, but it has not endorsed the view that the island is under Beijing’s control and maintains extensive military and economic relations with Taipei.

Just 17 nations have diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have escalated since Trump took office, with a growing trade war that shows no signs of abating despite lower-level negotiations in Washington this week.

Analysts said the White House statement marked a significant toughening of rhetoric since China helped pressure two other nations — the Dominican Republic and Burkino Faso — to cut ties with Taiwan in the spring.

“You can tell from the statement it’s not just about Taiwan, it’s about Chinese political interference, operations and activities in many countries around the world and particularly concern about what the U.S. considers its backyard,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a very sharply worded statement, and it is clearly signaling to China that this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated.”

Glaser noted, however, the White House did not stipulate the potential consequences for Beijing, which she suggested would view the statement as a bid for leverage in the bilateral trade dispute.

Last month, dozens of international airlines, including the three largest U.S. carriers — American, United and Delta — bowed to China’s demand to edit out the name of Taiwan from their routes, changing the destination to simply Taipei. The Trump administration had vigorously criticized Beijing’s demand, which the White House in the spring characterized as “Orwellian nonsense.”

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced his administration’s decision Tuesday, citing “extraordinary opportunities” that would be possible after recognizing China.

Beijing has sought to extend its influence through a “belt and road” economic program that extends huge infrastructure loans across the globe. But the program has begun to draw concerns, and the Malaysian government recently canceled two large-scale projects funded by the Chinese over fears they would force the country into bankruptcy.

In her statement, Sanders said the move “will have implications for decades to come . . . This is a decision that affects not just El Salvador, but also the economic health and security of the entire Americas region.”