Poor Panama. China’s Just Not That Into You.

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The list of countries that have chosen diplomatic relations with Taiwan over mainland China reads like an exercise in national obscurity. The 23-nation compendium includes Burkina Faso, Tuvalu and Saint Kitts and Nevis, along with Palau, Swaziland and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic has assiduously courted nations to come over to its side, countering Taiwan’s dollar diplomacy with promises of even more lavish Chinese aid and investment.

So it was a surprise to find out from a Wikileaks missive that China had actually rebuffed Panama’s wish in 2009 to switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. The reason, according to a cable sent by the then U.S. Ambassador to Panama? China didn’t want to undermine strengthening relations with Taiwan on account of a diplomatic incident. According to U.S. envoy Barbara Stephenson, incoming Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli had told her that he wanted his homeland to benefit from China’s economic rise. However, a 2010 meeting between the Panamanian and Chinese Foreign Ministers resulted in Beijing rebuffing Panama City’s wish for fear of cooling cross-straits relations, according to Stephenson.

Since coming to office in 2008, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has distanced himself from the island’s previous efforts to maintain diplomatic relationships through an open checkbook. However, the U.S. cable makes reference to alleged attempts by Taiwan to preserve its relationship with Panama by handing over $47 million in 2009 for a new hospital and executive business jet. Taiwan’s Vice President Vincent Siew is currently in Latin America to boost relations with ally Paraguay, before heading north to Panama. The question is just how generous Taiwan will be feeling by the time he arrives in Panama City.