Tsai’s Panama Canal Visit: Extending beyond Beijing’s Diplomatic Threshold

By Marina Lleonart Calvo —

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan meets President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic during her visit to Panama on June 26, 2016. Source: PresidenciaRD's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan meeting President Danilo Medina of the Dominican Republic during her visit to Panama on June 26, 2016. Source: PresidenciaRD’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen set off on June 24 to visit two nations in Central and South America – Panama and Paraguay – for her first overseas trip after taking office in May 2016. President Tsai transited through Miami on the way to Panama and stopped in Los Angeles on her July 2 return.

The official purpose of President Tsai’s trip was to attend the opening ceremony of the extension of the 1914 Panama Canal, the largest expansion project of the waterway since its construction.

This visit also gave Taiwan’s president a rare opportunity to interact with U.S. leaders, namely Dr. Jill Biden, members of a U.S. Congressional delegation, U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Panama John Feeley, and other high-ranking State and Defense Department officials. Tsai also met with a wide spectrum of other leaders, some from countries that do not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including officials from Japan and various Latin American countries.

President Xi Jinping was also invited to the Panama Canal ceremony, but declined Panama’s invitation and sent an official from the Ministry of Commerce in his place. When asked if Xi would meet with Tsai if he did attend, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei again referenced “the ‘One China Principle’ as a fundamental precondition for handling and developing relations with countries around the world.”

Beijing’s attitude towards Taipei has tended to shift according to Taiwanese presidents’ level of agreement with Beijing’s interpretation of the “1992 Consensus.” In contrast to icy cross-Strait relations under Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, ties grew stronger under Chen’s Kuomintang (KMT) successor Ma Ying-jeou, in large part due to his endorsement of the “1992 Consensus” as the common political foundation for continued peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.

Since Tsai’s election in January 2016, Beijing has consistently cautioned Taiwan’s leadership and China’s allies against undermining the “One China Principle.” In her inauguration speech, Tsai did not embrace the “1992 Consensus,” sparking a rebuke from Beijing. As such, China views Tsai’s unwillingness to explicitly acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” and her visits abroad as an implicit effort to engage in state-to-state relations and promote de jure independence for the island. Two days into her overseas visit, Beijing announced that it would suspend cross-Strait communications with Taipei.

At the same time, though, transit stops in the United States by Taiwanese presidents traveling to Latin America have become somewhat institutionalized and date back to President Lee Teng-Hui’s 1994 visit during the Clinton administration. Throughout these stops, Taiwan’s presidents have given speeches at universities and found ways to meet with representatives from the U.S. government and the private sector.

On this occasion, Tsai was greeted in Miami by U.S. Representatives Gregg Harper and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and also met with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Managing Director of the Washington Office of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Joseph Donovan, and Miami Marlins’ pitcher Chen Wei-yin. She also held a phone conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan. While these meetings were not in Washington, D.C., and were not explicitly official, they surely caught China’s attention.

China has historically tried to use its economic clout to persuade Panama and other countries with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations to switch their allegiances, often times out-bidding Taiwan in so-called “checkbook diplomacy.” Consequentially, the number of countries that recognize the Republic of China (ROC) declined from 31 at the beginning of Chen’s term to just 22 now, compared to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s 170.  Though The Gambia broke ties with Taiwan in 2013, Beijing refrained from resuming official ties in order to adhere to an unofficial diplomatic truce with former President Ma. However, in March 2016, Beijing’s decision to establish official ties with The Gambia sends a warning signal to Tsai’s administration.

More recently, a leaked U.S. cable stated Panama’s intent to reestablish diplomatic relations with the PRC. Should Beijing accept relations with Panama, Taiwan’s other partners may reconsider their current relations with Taiwan. Taiwanese KMT legislators have warned President Tsai that proceeding with prudence in cross-Strait relations will be critical to maintaining Taiwan’s existing relationships abroad. Tsai’s transit in the United States signaled the continuation of the friendly U.S.-Taiwan unofficial relations of the Ma years, rather than a return to the frigid final days of Chen’s presidency. Moreover, her expressed determination to work with Beijing on maintaining positive cross-Strait relations indicates that she is neither taking Chen’s lead nor seeking to follow in his administration’s footsteps.

Ms. Marina Lleonart Calvo is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.


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