El Salvador Switches Diplomatic Affiliation from Taiwan to People’s Republic of China

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.