Nicaragua breaks ties with Taiwan, China gets one more ally

Nicaragua has decided to sever diplomatic links with Taiwan and recognize China, leaving the self-governing island democracy with just 14 diplomatic allies.

Why Nicaragua end ties with Taiwan

The reasons behind Nicaragua’s decision to switch ties is very interesting where two other countries – United State and China play the important role.

Nicaragua’s authoritarian President Daniel Ortega has increasingly found himself an international pariah, with the United States denouncing last month’s presidential polls as a “pantomime election.”

That may have prompted Ortega to take up an offer from China, which has been steadily luring away Taiwan’s remaining allies by promising trade and development assistance while ignoring political controversies.

The fact that Nicaragua maintained ties with Taiwan at all after Ortega’s return to power following the 2006 election was a surprise to many.

After taking office for the first time in 1979, the Marxist-Leninist Ortega switched ties to Beijing, only for relations with Taipei to be restored after Violeta Chamorro defeated him in 1990’s presidential election.

China’s offer to Nicaragua

Does China offer something to Nicaragua to switch ties? Well, in its announcement, Nicaragua gave no reason for the latest change, but it follows a trend among its Central American neighbors such as Panama and Costa Rica which have switched to Beijing in recent years, prompting concerns in Taipei and Washington of a potential domino effect.

Along with development aid, loans and other incentives, critics allege Beijing uses more underhanded methods such as threats and bribes to win away Taiwan’s allies, although no evidence of that has emerged.

The biggest incentive may simply be China’s massive and growing international economic and political clout.

While Taiwan punches above its weight in trade, particularly in key high-tech industries, it is increasingly isolated diplomatically and has no voice in most international forums.

Its upholding of democratic values may only have limited appeal among fragile democracies with struggling economies.

history behind the diplomatic rivalry between Taiwan and Nicaragua

The competition for allies dates from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. That same year, Chiang Kai-shek, defeated in the Chinese civil war, moved his Nationalist regime, known as the Republic of China, to Taiwan.

North Korea, the Soviet Union and countries within its sphere swiftly moved to recognize Beijing, while the U.S. and its allies backed Taipei. But as support for China held steady, Taiwan gradually lost the backing of major states such as France and the United Kingdom.

The biggest blow came in 1979, when the U.S. moved its Embassy to Beijing and ended a defense treaty with Taiwan.

Over the course of the rivalry, some countries have changed sides multiple times, depending on which made the best offer. But as China grew in influence, and Taiwan became a democracy answerable to parliament and the public, Beijing got the upper hand.

Taiwan’s election of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as president in 2008 brought about a “diplomatic truce,” during which China held off on poaching Taiwan’s allies in exchange for Ma’s recognition of the “one-China principle” stating the island and mainland China were part of a single Chinese nation.

That came to a crashing end with the election of the popular independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Tsai refused to endorse the principle and the game was back on.

USA’s role in rivalry between Taiwan and Nicaragua

Despite the lack of formal ties, Washington remains Taiwan’s most important ally and recently opened a new representative office in Taipei that has all the trappings of an embassy.

It has continued to sell Taiwan weapons and provide training under the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act that require the US ensure the island can maintain a credible defense and regard threats to the island as matters of “grave concern.”

The US has also sought to convince Taiwan’s remaining allies of the wisdom of maintaining formal diplomatic ties, meeting with Pacific island nations on the topic after the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched relations to Beijing in 2019.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price this week said Ortega’s decision “deprives Nicaragua’s people of a steadfast partner in its democratic and economic growth,” and that the U.S. encourages “all countries that value democratic institutions, transparency, the rule of law, and promoting economic prosperity for their citizens to expand engagement with Taiwan.”