Ask what China’s interests are in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and any expert’s response will include trade and investment. Too often, however, one vital issue for the Chinese is overlooked: Taiwan.
The ALC has a disproportionate number of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with what Beijing considers a rebel province. Of the only 14 countries that now recognize Taiwan, 9 are in the region. Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador established ties with the People’s Republic of China between 2017 and 2018, switching sides.
Will Paraguay be next on the list? The country is seriously suffering from the pandemic. In March, there were street protests and a threat of impeachment of the president. And – of course – the vaccine shortage is dire.
Without diplomatic ties with China, Paraguay has very few options to ensure immediate access to vaccines. Of the vaccines administered in Brazil so far, around 85% are provided by the Chinese Coronavac. It is not surprising that Paraguay’s alliance with Taiwan is called into question in the country. The Senate rejected the change of direction in April last year, but the discussion of the “cost of Taiwan” resurfaced with the lack of vaccines.
The situation in Paraguay is not easy. Succumbing to Chinese interests at this point can be seen as a sign of weakness rather than pragmatism. While China doesn’t want to appear to be blackmailing, Paraguay also doesn’t want to make it seem like it can be blackmailed. It turns out that only China seems able to offer what is literally vital for Paraguayans today.
The US Secretary of State thought it best to call the Paraguayan president last week. He said Paraguay should “continue to work with democratic partners, including Taiwan, to overcome the global pandemic,” according to a US government report.
Although Paraguay wants to remain loyal to Taiwan, Washington has maintained relations with Beijing for more than 40 years. The United States follows the “one-China” policy, but has a close connection with Taiwan. Beijing reluctantly tolerates the situation because it is an essential part of the arrangement that enabled Washington to recognize Communist China in 1979.
It would be interesting to know if President Mario Abdo Benítez asked the US secretary which day the US vaccines land at Silvio Pettirossi airport. The answer could only be: after all Americans have been vaccinated. But Paraguayans are dying today.
Meanwhile, in early April, the President of El Salvador, from the group of recent converts, celebrated the arrival of 150,000 doses of Chinese vaccines.
Abdo Benítez faces an additional complicator. His father was a direct adviser to former President Alfredo Stroessner and, in this capacity, helped shape the relations between Taiwan and Paraguay, established in 1953. He was, for example, a sort of Paraguayan Henry Kissinger – but de the other side was Taiwan, and not Mao’s China.
Ties with Taipei are certainly bearing fruit for Paraguay. Loyalty is valued, cooperation is generous. As the club withdraws from countries recognizing Taiwan, loyal members are particularly appreciated.
The pride of Paraguayans, the friendship and gratitude of the country for decades of relations and the prospect of greater collaboration in the future play for Taipei.
Despite this, reality and interests prevail. In South America, only Paraguay recognizes Taiwan. The question is not whether – but when – the country changes sides. The challenge for Paraguay is to build an honorable solution, to maximize the gains and to deal with the dissatisfied. We are a family business.
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