Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen set off Friday for two friendly nations in Latin America, her first overseas trip after a month in office, to lock in ties that could be disrupted by China. She'll also meet officials from a wider group of countries including the United States.
Tsai left Friday for a nine-day trip to Panama and Paraguay at the invitation of both hosts. In Panama she will attend the inauguration ceremony of the Panama Canal expansion project, an event Sunday due to draw heads of state and dignitaries from about 70 countries.
The president faces the risk that China will pull away some of 22 states that Taiwan has diplomatic relations with, including Panama or Paraguay, as her government’s relations with Beijing grow increasingly strained. Taiwan looks to those nations as a voice in the United Nations and for signs of Taiwan’s legal legitimacy.
China and Taiwan bought off each other’s allies in poor parts of the world until former president Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 and opened talks with Beijing. Tsai, however, disputes Beijing’s “one China” condition for dialogue, so they have not talked since she came aboard May 20. The condition requires that both sides see each other as part of a single country.
China has seen proudly self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory since the civil war of the 1940s, rather than as its own country.
Tsai’s appearance at the Panama Canal ceremony may give her a rare chance to meet U.S. officials who seldom mix with Taiwan leaders, says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. China has diplomatic relations with the U.S. and opposes Washington's official contact with Taiwan, despite staunch informal ties between the two.
“There might be a chance to talk to the secretary of state or the wife of (Vice President) Joe Biden,” Huang says. “It gives an excuse for foreign leaders or dignitaries to shake hands with President Tsai. If she’s not taking this trip and then if something unexpected happens, then people will blame her for not going.”
The president’s trip also includes two transit stopovers in the United States, a sign that Washington believes she won’t damage already fragile U.S.-China ties. U.S. officials cut off her party’s previous president, anti-China firebrand Chen Shui-bian, from transit stops in the continental United States.
Tsai's visits in Latin America also will cement ties with Panama and Paraguay, Taiwan foreign ministry officials say. Like many of that nations that Taipei has diplomatic relations with, it gives them both development aid. Competition for the most aid pitted China against Taiwan over diplomatic allies before 2008. China, with growing economic and diplomatic power, has ties with more than 170 nations.
Tsai is due to meet Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela to discuss proposals to send Taiwan technical staff to help the Panama in agriculture, education and technology. She also is expected to tour a container terminal run by Evergreen Marine, a Taiwan company and the world’s fourth largest shipping line.
In Paraguay, she is scheduled to meet with President Horacio Cartes and speak to the Paraguayan legislature. She also is scheduled to review the progress of joint cooperation projects.
“We hope this first trip as president Tsai can show sincerity in strengthening our relations with diplomatic allies,” foreign ministry Deputy Minister Javier Hou told reporters.