TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduras President Xiomara Castro announced Tuesday that her government will seek to establish diplomatic relations with China, which would imply severing relations with Taiwan. The switch would leave Taiwan recognized by only 13 countries as China spends billions to win recognition for its “One China” policy.
Castro said on her Twitter account that she instructed Honduran Foreign Affairs Minister Eduardo Reina to start negotiations with China and that her intention is “expand frontiers freely in concert with the nations of the world.”
Castro said during her presidential campaign in 2021 that she would look for ties with China if elected, but once in power, her government backtracked on those comments. In January 2022, the foreign affairs minister told The Associated Press that Honduras would continue strengthening ties with Taiwan and that establishing a diplomatic relationship with China was not a priority for Castro.
Reina, the foreign affairs minister, had said the government weighed up the benefits that Honduras had received from a good relationship with Taiwan and decided that there was no reason to change at that moment.
In Taipei, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “expressed serious concerns to the Honduran government. Our country has made it clear to Honduras many times that Taiwan is a sincere and reliable cooperative partner to our allies. Honduras is requested to consider carefully and not fall into China’s trap or make wrong decisions that damage the long-term friendship between Taiwan and Honduras.”
Beijing has not commented on the issue
China claims self-ruled, democratic Taiwan is part of its territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary, and refuses most contacts with countries that maintain formal ties with Taiwan, and threatens retaliation against countries merely for increasing contacts.
China expelled Lithuania’s ambassador, downgraded diplomatic ties and blocked trade with the Baltic country of 2.7 million people after it boosted relations with Taipei in Oct. 2021. Lithuania has since closed its embassy in Beijing and opened a trade office in Taiwan.
It’s not clear what made Honduras’ government change its mind. However, China, which is building a massive dam in Honduras, generally uses trade and investment as incentives for switching ties, as it has done successfully with Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, most recently, South Pacific nations including the Solomon Islands.
Taiwan supplies its dwindling number of formal diplomatic partners with agricultural experts, vocational training programs and other forms of economic aid.
However, budgetary restraints imposed by the democratically elected legislature prevent it from splashing out on sports stadiums, conference halls and government buildings as China does.
China’s multi-billion dollar “Belt and Road” initiative has also offered developing nations ports, railways, power plants and other infrastructure, funded by loans provided at market rates.
The loss of Honduras would leave Taiwan with formal diplomatic ties just 13 sovereign states, including Vatican City. In Latin America, it also has relations with Belize and Paraguay, with most of its remaining allies being small, poor island nations in the Caribbean and South Pacific.
It’s sole remaining African ally is Eswanti, formerly known as Swaziland, whose Prime Minister Cleopas Sipho Dlamini visited Taiwan this month and expressed support for the island’s re-admission to the United Nations and its agencies.
Despite China’s campaign of isolation, Taiwan retains robust informal ties with more than 100 other countries.
Earlier this month, Micronesian President David Panuelo accused China of “political warfare” in a letter to other national leaders and discussed switching diplomatic allegiance from China to Taiwan in exchange for $50 million to recharge the tiny Pacific island nation’s trust fund.
Panuelo said China had been spying on Micronesia, offering bribes and acting in a threatening manner in an effort to ensure that if it goes to war with Taiwan, Micronesia would be aligned with China, or at least abstain from taking sides.
Panuelo said Micronesia would also receive an annual $15 million assistance package and Taiwan would take over various projects that China had begun, including a national convention center, two state government complexes, and two gymnasiums.
China denied the allegations, calling them a “smear.”
China’s diplomatic offensive has begun raising concerns in the U.S. as its rivalry with Beijing rivalry sharpens.
China won over former Taiwanese Pacific allies Kiribati and the Solomon Islands in 2019, signing a security pact with the latter that would permit Chinese navy ships and security forces to maintain a presence in the country. The move drew concern from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, as well as opposition politicians within the country.
Alarmed by such Chinese gains, the Biden administration is proposing to spend billions to keep three Pacific countries in the U.S. orbit.
President Joe Biden’s proposed federal budget released on Thursday includes more than $7.1 billion in funding for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. The money is included in the $63.1 billion request for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The money, to be paid out over 20 years, would extend agreements with the three states under which the U.S. provides them with essential services and economic support in exchange for military basing rights and other preferential treatment. Those deals were due to expire later this year and next, and U.S. officials say China has been trying to exploit extension negotiations for its own advantage.
The White House said the payments are part of its strategy to “out-compete China” and strengthen America’s alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.