Diplomatic Pouch / April 28, 2008
By Larry Luxner
Tiny Taiwan, which seems to be losing allies every year to its giant rival, the People's Republic of China, is doing all it can these days to hang onto the few friends it has.
On Dec. 12, the island nation of 23 million hosted a lavish year-end dinner for the dozen or so ambassadors of Western Hemisphere nations that still maintain relations with Taipei. The event was held at Twin Oaks Estate, a 26-room mansion that served as the official residence of Taiwanese ambassadors until 1979, when the Carter administration broke those relations and established ties with mainland China instead.
"Half of Taiwan's allies are located in Latin America and the Caribbean, which forms one of the most important pillars of our foreign relations," said Joseph Wu, Washington representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). "We thank you all for staunchly supporting our efforts to participate in the United Nations. Accordingly, I look forward to expanding our relations in the years to come."
Over a formal dinner of Tainan shrimp rolls, scallops soup with tofu, baked codfish, filet mignon, stir-fried asparagus and green tea custard, ambassadors made speeches and toasted their countries' long-standing friendship with Taiwan.
"It is always a pleasure for me to participate in this breaking of bread," said Izben Williams, ambassador of the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts & Nevis, "this breaking of bread which is symbolic of a partnership and the deepening of a friendship between our peoples."
Williams noted that as far back as World War II, St. Kitts was trading with Taiwan — then known as Formosa — and that upon its independence from Great Britain in 1983, "Taiwan was the very first country with which we established diplomatic relations."
With barely 40,000 inhabitants, St. Kitts & Nevis is the smallest nation in the Western Hemisphere. This month, the country's foreign minister is in Taiwan, opening the first St. Kitts & Nevis Embassy anywhere in Asia.
"Taiwan has helped us recover from natural disasters and has assisted us with advancing our social and economic development," said Willams. "And Taiwan's cooperation in our successful bid to host portions of the Cricket World Cup was tremendously helpful and highly appreciated by my government."
In return, said the ambassador, "we have bravely sood as a stauch advocate for Taiwan's membership in the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and other institutions. We firmly believe that the time has come for Taiwan to join its rightful place in the international community."
Interestingly, not a single speaker uttered the names of the two countries most on the minds of those in attendance: China and Costa Rica.
Earlier this year, Costa Rican President Oscar Arías Sánchez shocked his Taiwanese friends with the announcement that he was ending his country's 63-year partnership and switching allegiance to Beijing. Local newspapers reported that the Chinese had offered Costa Rica more than $400 million in grants and soft loans; Arias didn't deny those reports but rather accused Taiwan of being stingy with aid money.
No surprise, then, that Costa Rica's flag was missing from the Twin Oaks dais for the first time since 2002, when Taiwan began hosting the annual holiday dinner.
"I know there's been talk of 'dollar diplomacy' in some circles. We don't bother with that talk," said Williams, whose country recently received $1.9 million from Taiwan to construct Bird Rock Stadium, which will host the 2008 CARIFTA games next March.
"There seem to be some people who ironically have a conveniently skewed perspective," the envoy from St. Kitts told his guests. "In an era when the international community celebrates the human rights of the individual with such ferocity, it sems only fair that every government should be afforded the appropriate forum or mechanism to represent its people on the international stage in a way that only that government has the legal right to do. And so we have continued to stand by Taiwan in this struggle."
So has El Salvador, whose president, Tony Saca, has invited Wu to visit his country next month.
"It was a wrong assumption to assume that if Costa Rica broke relations with Taiwan, then the next country would be El Salvador," said the Central American nation's veteran ambassador in Washington, René León.
"We are very conscious about our relationship with Taiwan," León told Diplomatic Pouch. "President Saca, when he was running for office, stated very clearly that he'd support the Republic of China no matter what. And he's a man of his word. He also said we were not leaving Iraq during his presidency, and we haven't."
León, who's represented El Salvador in the United States for 11 years, denies that his country's friendship with Taiwan is a relationship of convenience.
"Taiwan respects human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It's a beacon of freedom and economic liberty in Asia," he said, noting that El Salvador and Taiwan also have a free-trade agreement in place. "During 15 years of civil war, the Taiwanese people stood by our side while we were under communist aggression, and we never abandon a friend or an ally."