BEIJING — Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen reacted angrily Tuesday to Panama’s decision to shift diplomatic ties to China, insisting that Taipei will never bow down to threats and intimidation from Beijing and is determined to uphold its sovereignty.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced on television Monday evening that he was establishing diplomatic ties with China and breaking with Taiwan, saying he was “convinced this is the correct path for our country.” He added that China constituted 20 percent of the world’s population, has the second-biggest economy and is the second-biggest user of the Panama Canal.
The move comes as Beijing steps up efforts to isolate Taipei internationally since last year’s election of Tsai.
“The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that only one China exists in the world, the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all China, and Taiwan forms an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” a joint statement from China and Panama read.
Panama is the second country to break with Taiwan since Tsai’s election last year, following the small African islands of Sao Tome and Principe.
For the first time in eight years, Taiwan was not invited to the annual assembly of the World Health Organization last month. It was also excluded from a global forum of the International Civil Aviation Organization last year. Both moves reportedly came at the insistence of Beijing, which has made clear its displeasure with Tsai’s reluctance to explicitly endorse the idea that there is only one China, encompassing the mainland and the island of Taiwan.
China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and insists that any country that establishes diplomatic relations with Beijing must cut them with Taipei. It says its relationship with Taipei is founded on the “1992 consensus” between the two sides that effectively rules out the idea of Taiwan ever gaining independence.
But that was a deal reached by a government run by the Kuomintang party in Taiwan, not Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, and while Tsai has indicated she respects the agreement and says she wants dialogue and friendly ties with Beijing, she has been reluctant to spell out an explicit endorsement.
In the past, China and Taiwan had competed to win diplomatic allies, wooing poorer countries with promises of aid and investment. But they established an unofficial truce under the Kuomintang government, with neither trying aggressively to upset the status quo, experts say.
Panama’s move decreases to 20 the number of countries formally recognizing Taiwan, most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A former ambassador to China for Mexico, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted that he expected the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to follow suit soon. “Big question is, will Vatican ditch Taiwan for Beijing?” he added.
Tsai addressed the Taiwanese people on Tuesday afternoon, vowing that Taipei will not engage in a “diplomatic bidding war,” nor succumb to Beijing’s threats.
“We are a sovereign country. This sovereignty cannot be challenged or traded,” she said, insisting that her people want peace but that Beijing is pushing relations toward confrontation.
“Coercion and threats will not bring the two sides together. Instead they will drive our two peoples apart,” she said. “On behalf of the 23 million people of Taiwan, I declare that we will never surrender to such intimidation.”
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Taiwan’s international isolation is not in the interest of the United States or the rest of the world.
“Taiwan has a great deal to offer the international community, ranging from top-quality medical services to strong IT talent and active international NGOs that provide disaster relief to countries in need,” she said, adding that the United States and other countries should find “creative ways” to engage with Taiwan.
Nor are China’s pressure tactics doing anything to help it win hearts and minds in Taiwan, experts say.
“So far the tactic has only succeeded in alienating the Taiwanese public and reinforced notions of separateness,” said J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and chief editor of the Taiwan Sentinel website.
“As long as such efforts do not substantially undermine Taiwan’s ability to function as a sovereign state — and no theft of a smallish diplomatic ally will ever achieve this — then I don’t see how or why the Taiwanese would give in to such pressure by deciding to accommodate Beijing,” he said.
A poll released by the Taiwanese government over the weekend showed nearly three-quarters of respondents rejected Beijing’s insistence on the one-China principle as a precondition to political ties. More than 80 percent said China’s efforts to limit Taiwan’s international space hurt their interests, and a similar proportion said China should recognize the existence of the “Republic of China,” as Taiwan officially calls itself.
Cole said Taiwan needs to focus more on developing healthy relations with unofficial allies that are democracies and important economies and not worry about maintaining official ties with small states that want infrastructure investment Taiwan cannot afford.