© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Honduras’ President Iris Xiomara Castro Sarmiento addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2022. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
By Gustavo Palencia and Ben Blanchard
TEGUCIGALPA/TAIPEI (Reuters) – Honduran President Xiomara Castro said on Tuesday she had asked the country’s foreign minister to open official relations with China, pressuring Taiwan ahead of a sensitive visit by President Tsai Ing-wen to the United States and Central America.
China does not allow countries with which it has diplomatic relations to maintain official ties with Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory with no right to state-to-state ties, a position Taiwan strongly disputes.
Castro had floated the idea of starting relations with China and cutting ties with Taiwan during her electoral campaign, but said in January 2022 she hoped to maintain ties with Taiwan.
If the Central American country does end relations with Taiwan, it will leave the island with only 13 diplomatic allies.
Opposition Honduran lawmaker Tomas Zambrano told local TV the decision would likely affect the country’s relationship with the U.S., its top trade partner, noting that many families depend on remittances sent from the north.
The U.S. has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is its most important international backer and arms supplier, a consistent source of friction in Sino-U.S. relations.
“We have to look at things very pragmatically and seek the best benefit for the Honduran people,” Honduran Foreign Minister Eduardo Reina told local TV on Tuesday.
Castro’s statement, made on Twitter, comes ahead of Tsai’s planned trip to Central America next month where she is expected to visit Guatemala and Belize. More sensitively, she will transit the United States and meet U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, which is likely to anger China.
Taking lawmaker questions in parliament on Wednesday, Chen Chin-kung, deputy head of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, said he “absolutely did not rule out” the possibility of China trying to exert pressure ahead of Tsai’s trip.
Taiwan has accused China of luring its allies with pledges of massive amounts of loans, which Beijing denies.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said it had expressed serious concern to the Honduran government and urged it to consider its decision carefully and not “fall into China’s trap.”
A source familiar with the situation in Taiwan said the island needed to exhaust “every possible means” to maintain diplomatic ties with Honduras.
Meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry said it welcomed the Honduran president’s statement.
“China stands ready to establish diplomatic ties with countries in line with the One-China principle,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday.
The Chinese ambassador in Mexico, Zhang Run, earlier tweeted that the One-China principle, which holds that China and Taiwan are part of one country, is the consensus of the international community.
“Congratulations Honduras on this correct decision to embrace that principle! Hopefully it will be fulfilled,” Zhang said.
In December 2021, Nicaragua broke its longstanding ties with Taiwan, switching allegiance to China and declaring that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory.”
The U.S. State Department had at the time encouraged countries to maintain their ties with Taiwan and said Nicaragua’s decision did not reflect the will of the people as its government was not freely elected.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Honduras.
Taiwan could lose another Latin American ally, Paraguay, if the opposition wins the presidential election in late April.
Paraguay would cut ties with Taiwan and open relations with China, the opposition’s presidential candidate Efrain Alegre has said, hoping to boost important soy and beef exports.