Citing hopes of economic support, El Salvador announced on August 21 that it had chosen to recognize the People’s Republic of China instead of Taiwan, with which it had held formal diplomatic relations since 1961. Presidential Spokesman Roberto Lorenzana commented, “Fundamentally, it’s an interest in betting on the growth of our country with one of the world’s most booming economies. El Salvador can’t turn its back on international reality.”
The country’s president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, said that government representatives were already in Beijing to begin talks on trade, investment, infrastructure, science, health, education, tourism and support for small and medium-size companies. To date, IntelTrak has not recorded any Chinese projects specifically located in El Salvador, indicating that the Sanchez Ceren government is likely betting on this decision leading to new business, rather than the decision having been facilitated by existing projects. For its part, Beijing is said to be waiting until El Salvador’s presidential elections in early 2019 before announcing major projects. Reports suggest that the development of port infrastructure would be high on the list.
While Panama, Burkina Faso, and the Dominican Republic have all transferred their allegiance to Beijing since June 2017, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister said his country “will not engage in money competition.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited El Salvador in January 2016, ahead of which Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said, “We haven’t received any signal from China that there is any interest in changing the level of the relationship, but we will pay attention to how things evolve.” This statement may have been interpreted by Beijing as indicating an openness from El Salvador to transferring its diplomatic recognition.
El Salvador’s decision led to a strong rebuke from Washington, where the White House said,
“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, and will result in a re-evaluation of our relationship with El Salvador. This is a decision that affects not just El Salvador, but also the economic health and security of the entire Americas region. Around the world, governments are waking up to the fact that China’s economic inducements facilitate economic dependency and domination, not partnership.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang retorted,
“Some countries are making irresponsible remarks about whether this will interfere with El Salvador’s domestic affairs, but I believe it is obvious who is politically interfering in the region.”
In an effort to forestall any attempt by Beijing to secure diplomatic relations with El Salvador, Taiwan spent $50 million on a cooperation agreement in 2014. It remains to be seen whether Taiwan will continue to compete in this way for its remaining diplomatic relations, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
El Salvador previously had a long history of standing up to China, dating back to November 1950, when the country supported the Dalai Lama’s call for the UN General Assembly to stop the PRC’s invasion of Tibet.