Taiwan has had a rough year.
In June, Panama severed diplomatic relations with the little democratic republic in favor of a One-China policy.
There was fear that other Central American countries would soon follow Panama’s lead, but, fortunately for Taipei, so far, that has not happened … yet.
Earlier in the year, the two West African nations of Sao Tome and Principe and Gambia were convinced by Beijing to cut off ties with Taiwan.
Currently, only 19 nations and the Vatican officially recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of China (ROC), which Mainland China considers a renegade province.
Meanwhile, Beijing is on the diplomatic warpath when it comes to Taipei, first, because of that infamous, protocol-breaking phone call between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen late last year, and second, because Tsai dared to speak about the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in July.
Tsai was quoted as saying that “only through democracy, in which every Chinese person has freedom and respect, can China truly become a proud and important country,” a statement that China called “reckless” and “very dangerous” for cross-strait relations.
Just one month earlier, Beijing issued a harsh and angry response when Tsai offered to help China transition to democracy while marking the 28th anniversary of 1989’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
And over the course of the last 12 months, China has let its mounting displeasure of Tsai and her government be known by sailing an aircraft carrier around island, scaling back Taiwan-bound tourism and, since March, detaining a Taiwanese activist without offering any formal charges against him.
On the home front, Tsai, who came to power in May 2016 on a platform of trying to keep the peace with China by not declaring formal independence, has seen her approval ratings plummet to just 33 percent in the last two months, mainly because her tightrope balancing act between appeasing and maintaining her distance from Beijing has been perceived by many of her detractors as a do-nothing strategy.
But finally, late last month, things began to look up for Taiwan when Paraguay — the island’s only diplomatic ally in South America — tossed Tsai a political lifeline in the form of a three-day visit by its president, Horacio Cartes.
Under normal circumstances, a presidential visit might not have seemed like much of an outstretched hand for the island, but in the current diplomatic waters that are churning in the Taiwan Strait, it was a political godsend.
With a 30-member trade delegation in tow, Cartes, who had already visited Taiwan twice during his four-year presidency, made it clear that his government’s unflagging commitment to the bilateral relationship was not going to be compromised.
And Cartes was not afraid to vocalize that commitment, even at the risk of potentially courting the ire of the world’s second-largest economy, which is also the second-largest trade partner of the four-nation Mercosur, to which Paraguay belongs, with a combined annual exchange of about $200 billion.
“Based on ongoing and earnest friendship, as well as mutual support,” he said in a public address to the legislature, “we will continue to reinforce Taiwan and Paraguay’s inseparable cooperation and exchange programs.”
Beijing clearly took notice, but offered no immediate response.
Still, China has been avidly trying to erode Taiwan’s global standing ever since Tsai took office, not only be luring away the likes of Panama and the two African allies, but by using its clout to ostracize the island within the international arena.
In May, China blocked Taiwan from attending the annual World Health Organization (WHO) assembly, and last year, Beijing made sure that Taipei was not allowed to observe a session of the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization or participate in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The loss of diplomatic ties with Panama constituted a serious setback for Taiwan, but Paraguay’s outstretched hand of friendship was a brave show of support and set an example for the island nation’s other allies to stay strong and help Taipei weather the storm of diplomatic assaults from Beijing.
It’s good to know that at least a little landlocked nation in South America has the courage and decency to stand up to the world’s biggest political bully.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]