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Panama Has Ditched Taiwan. Here’s Why It Matters for America.

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The National Interest, 22 June, 2017

Last week’s sudden announcement by Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela that Panama would henceforth be shifting its diplomatic relations from Taiwan to mainland China was not entirely unexpected in Taipei. Tsai Ing-wen had deliberately avoided visiting the country during her visit to the region after Panamanian leaders had delayed the acceptance of Taiwan’s new ambassador there for more than six months. For Taipei, it was clear that the writing was on the wall. Varela’s decision to favor Beijing came as another hit for Taiwan after it lost two other allies in the past year.
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So what lies behind the recent moves of Taiwan’s allies to recognize Beijing instead? Part of the story relates to Taiwanese president Tsai. Coming from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, President Tsai’s decision not to affirm the 1992 Consensus (on One China) and her congratulatory telephone call to president-elect Donald Trump in December of last year were poorly received in Beijing. Shortly after the telephone call, one of Taiwan’s African allies, Sao Tome and Principe, suddenly announced that it was dumping Taipei in favor of Beijing. According to Zhang Baohui, an academic at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, the shift by the small African country indicated that “Beijing has a new Taiwan strategy: they’re going back to their confrontational style, and the truce with Taiwan over the past eight years is over.”

Given the fact that the United States sits astride this precarious status quo, any increase in Cross-Strait tensions directly impacts U.S. national interests. While the official U.S. policy is to support the “One China” policy and maintain close diplomatic and economic ties with China, it is also committed by domestic law to protecting Taiwan from unification-by-force. Regardless of their preferences, U.S. presidents are obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to protect Taiwan and supply it with adequate military arms.

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