Nicaragua has broken off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, leaving the self-ruled democratic island with just 14 formal diplomatic allies amid ongoing pressure from China, which claims the island as its own.
The central American country made the announcement in a brief statement on Thursday from its foreign ministry, and cited Beijing’s One China policy.
“The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua declares that it recognises that in the world there is only one single China,” the statement read. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all of China and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory. The Government of the Republic of Nicaragua today bvreaks diplomatic relations with Taiwan and ceases to have any contact or official relationship.”
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said early on Friday that it “deeply regretted” the decision of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to “disregard the friendship” of the Taiwanese people.
Taiwan also said that it was breaking off relations with Nicaragua, although the decision is widely seen as unilateral by Nicaragua.
Formally known as the Republic of China, Taiwan’s government fled to the island at the end of the Chinese Civil War. It represented China at the United Nations from the end of World War II until the early 1970s.
Since the 2000s, China has steadily chipped away at Taiwan’s remaining allies who are mostly small countries in the Caribbean, South America and the Pacific Islands as well as the Holy See.
It has become increasingly assertive since President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected president in 2016, with Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both breaking with Taiwan in 2019. The Solomon Islands decision remains controversial, however, and contributed to last month’s unrest in the capital Honiara, which left at least three people dead.
‘Offer they couldn’t refuse’
During the Cold War, Taiwan and Nicaragua were both united by the anti-Communist beliefs of their one-party authoritarian states, headed respectively by Chiang Kai-shek and the Somoza Family.
Both later transitioned to democracy although Nicaragua followed a more unstable path.
President Daniel Ortega has held power for 14 years and ahead of last month’s election, criticised by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union and described by some as a “sham”, imprisoned more than a dozen opposition leaders ahead of the vote for violating national security laws.
The country was also rocked by months of protests in 2018 in 2019, which led to the deaths of at least 325 people and hundreds of arrests, according to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
The US imposed sanctions on Ortega and his family during the unrest, and his government relied on financial support from Taiwan including a $3 million donation to police in 2018 and a $100 million loan in 2019.
Other foreign aid from Taiwan, however, has taken the form of more benign school lunch projects, health care and agricultural development projects, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Nicaragua was probably prompted to make the switch because “they had an offer they couldn’t refuse” from China, said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbanks Center. It was likely such incentives took the form of foreign aid, trade deals or other investment projects, he added.
Beijing has reacted with anger to countries that have sought closer relationships with Taiwan, and downgraded ties with Lithuania after Taipei opened a representative office in the Baltic nation using the name ‘Taiwan’ rather than the usual Taipei.
Still, amid worsening ties between China and many western democracies, the island has seen an increase in the number of delegations willing to risk Beijing’s ire to visit the island.
Early last month, a seven-member delegation from the European Parliament visited Taipei amid concerns in the European Union over alleged attempts by China to influence European politics and sow misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Later in November, a bipartisan group of five legislators from the US House of Representatives met Tsai in a surprise one-day visit.
The last time Beijing and Taipei came close to military conflict was during the 1950s on an outlying Taiwanese island, but Beijing also fired missiles in the direction of Taiwan ahead of its first democratic election in 1996.
Beijing has also used other methods to isolate Taiwan – from putting pressure on international organisations like the UN to exclude it as an observer to regularly sending military airplanes in its air zone.
Taiwan still formally claims mainland China in its constitution, but it has largely moved away from that position since its democratic transition.
Conservative members of the Kuomintang, one of Taiwan’s two major political parties, however, still formally hope to one day unify with China.