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Taiwan striving to keep Caribbean allies beyond China's reach

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen waving from behind a lectern
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei. Photo: Ashley Pon/Getty Images

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's tour through the Caribbean reflects Taiwan's imperative to reinforce relationships with allies vulnerable to poaching by China.

The big picture: Only 17 countries continue to recognize Taiwan instead of the People’s Republic of China, and the majority are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Tsai's 10-day trip follows 2 years of bad news, as Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have all broken decades-long diplomatic ties with Taipei in order to extend official ties to Beijing.

Details: President Tsai’s "Journey of Freedom, Democracy, Sustainability," wrapping up Monday, focused on Haiti and several smaller Caribbean nations.

  • In Haiti, Tsai met with President Jovenel Moise, who praised Taiwan’s assistance "in agricultural and energy matters, as well as other investments essential to the development of Haiti."
  • Tsai's 4-day trip to St. Kitts and Nevis marked the first-ever visit by a Taiwanese president to the island of Nevis, where Tsai broke ground on a national park.
  • In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, President Tsai met with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and addressed the parliament to praise joint efforts on sustainable development.
  • Tsai concluded her trip in St. Lucia, where she met with government leaders and toured agricultural and infrastructure projects.

Yes, but: Notably absent from the itinerary were visits to Guatemala, Honduras and Belize — longstanding allies considered likely to switch support to China. Although these countries are not yet a lost cause, and all recently sent high-level visitors to Taiwan, Tsai's trip redoubled efforts with smaller allies.

  • The Trump administration has supported Taiwan and harshly criticized countries that have changed sides, but its efforts haven't reversed the larger trend.

What to watch: Taiwan’s Caribbean campaign is likely to buy time as China continues making economic inroads across the region. However, the emphasis on photo ops, symbolism and warm words over substantive new projects leaves an opening for deeper Chinese engagement that will likely irritate Washington when it comes to pass.

Daniel P. Erikson is managing director at Blue Star Strategies and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.