(CNSNews.com) – Signaling a significant change in Washington’s approach to the issue, the Trump administration has recalled its envoys from three Latin American countries over their decisions to jettison diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of the communist government in Beijing.
The ambassadors to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic and the charge d’affaires in Panama were recalled “for consultations related to recent decisions to no longer recognize Taiwan,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed.
She said the chiefs of mission would discuss with administration officials “ways in which the United States can support strong, independent, democratic institutions and economies throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”
Beijing hit back in an editorial in the state-run China Daily accusing the Trump administration of “ill-intentioned meddling.”
“In trying to bully those countries that still have ‘diplomatic relations’ with Taipei from correcting their historical mistake, Washington is playing them as expendable pawns in its geopolitical games,” the paper said.
China itself has long been accused of “bullying” Taiwan, which it regards as a rebellious province, not an independent sovereign state
The U.S. move follows a shift in tone from the administration in response to China’s cajoling aimed at forcing the international community to back its stance on Taiwan. It also reflects stated concerns about Beijing’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Just three days before the diplomats were called home, four members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced bipartisan legislation authorizing the State Department to downgrade relations with – and even withhold economic and military aid from – countries whose government take adverse steps regarding Taiwan
The number of Taiwan’s full diplomatic allies has dropped to just 17, with five having abandoned Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-Wen took office in May 2016.
Under the legislation introduced by Republican Sens. Cory Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.) and Bob Menendez (N.J.), the department could use incentives and disincentives against countries considering downgrading or ending their ties with Taiwan.
El Salvador was to receive $50.5 million in aid in FY 2018, the Dominican Republic $28.04 million and Panama $2.46 million.
Gardner said the legislation “demands a whole-of-government approach to stand up to China’s bullying tactics against Taiwan, and will send a strong message to those nations considering siding with China over Taiwan that there will be consequences for such actions.”
Tone shift from the White House
China’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Tse-tung’s communist forces. Twenty-two years later, the U.N. General Assembly ejected Taiwan and handed the “China” seat to the People’s Republic of China.
In 1979, President Carter cut ties with Taipei and recognized Beijing. That same year, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, establishing quasi-diplomatic relations and committing the U.S. to helping the island to defend itself.
China refuses to have diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Taiwan’s sovereignty, and works hard to limit its ability to operate internationally.
For years, Beijing has been coaxing away Taiwan’s allies – mostly small and poor countries – often with economic inducements.
During the presidency of Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), from 2000-2008, China stepped up its activism, and cost Taiwan nine allies (Macedonia, Liberia, Dominica, Vanuatu, Grenada, Senegal, Chad, Costa Rica and Malawi),
Chen’s successor, from 2008-2016 was Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, which favors better ties with the mainland. Taiwan shed just one ally (Gambia) during Ma’s tenure.
After Tsai’s victory returned the DPP to power in 2016, China ramped up its efforts, and has wooed away five more allies. (Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, Dominican Republic and El Salvador.)
Previous U.S. administrations generally responded in a low-key fashion to China’s anti-Taiwan diplomacy, but the Trump administration has taken a different approach.
When Beijing this year demanded that U.S. airlines not portray Taiwan as a separate countries in online material, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the move “Orwellian nonsense” and an attempt to “impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens.”
More recently, the administration reacted strongly to the decision by El Salvador’s outgoing leftist government last month to dump Taiwan for China, with Sanders warning the decision would “result in a reevaluation of our relationship with El Salvador.”
“The El Salvadoran government’s receptiveness to China’s apparent interference in the domestic politics of a Western Hemisphere country is of grave concern to the United States,” she said, adding that countries around the world are “waking up to the fact that China’s economic inducements facilitate economic dependency and domination, not partnership.”
Rubio at the time warned that if El Salvador thought the U.S. was going to react in response to its break with Taiwan as it did when Panama and the Dominican Republic left, “they are very wrong.”
And when the State Department recalled the three envoys late last week, Rubio tweeted that the move was “only the beginning.”
Sanders’ criticism attracted a scathing editorial from the Communist Party organ Global Times, accusing Washington of “threatening smaller countries who choose to develop a diplomatic relationship with China.”
The paper said countries of Central America were coming to resent U.S. “hegemony” and predicted more would “turn against Taiwan.”
It advised the U.S. to direct its energies towards keeping the pro-independence Tsai “in check,” and cautioned that should the U.S. challenge the “one China” principle, it would “enter into a nightmare reality from which there would be no escape.”
Taiwan’s remaining allies are: Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Paraguay, Solomon Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, Tuvalu and the Vatican.