Honduras president-elect’s China pledge puts Taiwan and US on edge

Xiomara Castro’s victory in the Honduras presidential elections has placed the Central American nation at the heart of an intensifying diplomatic tug-of-war between Taiwan and China.

Honduras is one of only 15 remaining countries that recognizes the sovereignty of 台湾, which China claims as part of its own territory. But Castro made a manifesto pledge to end that decades-long relationship and establish diplomatic ties with Beijing.

In an apparent attempt to salvage the relationship, Taiwan’s president, 蔡英文, on Wednesday congratulated Castro for her victory and reminded her of their bilateral relations. “I look forward to working with you to benefit the people of our countries & strengthen the longstanding Taiwan–Honduras partnership,” Ing-wen said on Twitter.

Castro retweeted the message with a terse reply: “Many thanks President Tsai Ing-wen.”

Castro’s proposal has prompted concern in Washington, which has urged her to maintain the relationship with Taiwan, according to sources within her campaign.

During a visit to Honduras the week before the election, a US delegation made clear its hope that the country would maintain its current relationship with Taiwan – which the Chinese foreign ministry denounced as “arm-twisting and bullying behavior”.

But experts say a move to establishing diplomatic relations with 中国 would be partly motivated by a desire to counter US influence – and that the potential financial benefits were too enticing to pass up.

“It’s an attempt to balance the hegemony of the United States,” said the economist Ismael Zepeda, of the Honduran thinktank Fosdeh. “Honduras wants to enter into the dynamic of saying if you do not support me internally, I have another ally who will give me the resources I need if I want to build mega-projects.”

Although Taiwan has donated generously to its poorer allies, including Honduras, it cannot compete with the economic largesse of China, which has showered gifts, loans and investments upon other countries in the region who have switched diplomatic allegiances in recent years. Panama cut ties with Taipei in 2017 and has since seen a wave of Chinese investment.

And Castro will take the reins of a country still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and a pair of major hurricanes. Seventy-four per cent of residents fall below the poverty line – the highest percentage in at least four decades.

The situation is much more acute than when Castro’s husband, the former president Manuel Zelaya, governed between 2006 和 2009, when he was ousted in a military-backed coup.

Zelaya’s administration benefited economically – and politically – from Venezuela’s oil-fueled generosity, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and subsidies that allowed him to implement popular programs that he is still revered for to this day. But now Venezuela’s economy is in ruins, and the Biden administration has pledged to funnel $4bn in foreign assistance for the region primarily through civil society and the private sector.

“The decision to flirt with China is about the availability of resources. China is willing to give money for these pharaonic mega projects that in one way or another, governments use to project their images,” said Zepeda.

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