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The Strange Saga of Taiwan’s Short-Lived Office in Guyana

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The Strange Saga of Taiwan’s Short-Lived Office in Guyana

The closing of the office was a classic example of how U.S.-China rivalry served to complicate what should have been an innocuous diplomatic agreement.

The Strange Saga of Taiwan’s Short-Lived Office in Guyana

In this image made from video, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou points at a map of Guyana at a weekly press conference, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Taipei, Taiwan.

Credit: AP Photo

On February 4, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was opening a representative’s office in Guyana, a South American country that also hosts the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat.

Less than 24 hours later, Guyana backed out of the agreement, reportedly due to pressure from China. In a follow-up statement on February 5, the ministry expressed “deep regret… that despite multiple efforts, Guyana did not change its decision made under pressure from the Chinese government.”

In the sort span between the two announcements, China’s Foreign Ministry indeed chimed in, with spokesperson Wang Wenbin warning Guyana of consequences. “We hope [the] relevant party will abide by the one-China principle, refrain from any form of official exchanges and establishment of official institutions with Taiwan, take concrete actions to correct the error and eliminate the negative effects,” he said in a press briefing on February 4.

A day later, Wang expressed Beijing’s approval that Guyana had “corrected its mistake in a timely manner, which is beneficial to the overall situation of bilateral relations.”

China claims sovereignty over self-governing Taiwan and insists that its partners – including international organizations like the United Nations – ascribe to a “one China principle,” which in Beijing’s view means acknowledging its claim to Taiwan. Many of China’s partners, however, instead speak of a “one China policy” that effectively acknowledges Beijing’s claim – and its neuralgia on all Taiwan matters – without necessarily agreeing with China’s stance.

Guyana has had diplomatic relations with Beijing since 1972. Bilateral trade between the two was worth $319 million in 2019, according to Chinese government data. Chinese exports to Guyana – mainly manufactured goods – made up over 85 percent of the total, at $273 million. Guyana’s exports to China, largely timber and agricultural products, were worth just $46 million. According to World Bank data, those figures would place China in the top three exporters to Guyana – albeit far behind the top two, the United States at over $2 billion and Trinidad and Tobago with $726 million in 2018. China, however, doesn’t even crack to top 10 as a destination for Guyana’s own exports.

Perhaps more important than trade for Guyana, however, is Beijing’s role in financing and constructing infrastructure. China has funded several projects in the country, including the Arthur Chung Convention Center (previously the Guyana International Conference Center) and an expansion project at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, both of which were also built by Chinese firms. Despite controversy surrounding the airport expansion, Guyana is hoping for more from China, including a road linking southern Guyana with Brazil. In a sign of its hope for infrastructure cooperation, Guyana signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, inking a memorandum of understanding with China in July 2018.

Given that context, Guyana was not about to jeopardize its relationship with China through overtures to Taiwan. The Taiwan Office in Guyana was not a step toward diplomatic recognition, something Guyana had made clear from the outset. Elisabeth Harper, permanent secretary of Guyana’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasized that the new office was aimed at “attracting trade and investment opportunities.”

“That is what the focus is; there is nothing on the diplomatic side… It’s not something that is new,” Harper said in a radio interview on February 3.

Meanwhile, Taiwan itself said the office was meant to focus on trade, agriculture, and education cooperation.

Taiwan has representative offices in a large number of countries with which it lacks formal diplomatic relations. Generally, those offices are branded as “economic and cultural” representatives. The Guyana office, however, held the distinction of being brand-new – Taiwan had not had an office in Guyana previously, and its opening was being hailed as a “diplomatic win” for Taipei. Beijing would have wanted to immediately quash that perception.

Taiwan has strong ties in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is home to nine of the 15 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Given that, Guyana’s role as host of the CARICOM Secretariat would have made it a particularly enticing partner for Taiwan. In announcing the new Taiwan Office in Guyana, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the office would advance “pragmatic relations” with the entire Caribbean region.

So what went wrong?

Guyana’s about-face was announced in a brief statement from its own Foreign Ministry on February 4, which reads in full:

The Government of Guyana has noted various media releases on the matter of a Taiwan Office in Guyana.

The Government of Guyana wishes to clarify that it continues to adhere to the One China policy and its diplomatic relations remain intact with the People’s Republic of China.

The Government has not established any diplomatic ties or relations with Taiwan and as a result of the miscommunication of the agreement signed, this agreement has since been terminated.

While the news of the office was made public on February 4, according to the announcement from Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry the agreement had been reached on January 11, and the Taiwan Office in Guyana began operating provisionally on January 15. Taiwanese representatives were already in Guyana setting up the office, including seeking out permanent office space, when the agreement was abruptly revoked.

Taipei pointed the blame at “bullying” from Beijing. “Taiwan expresses its deepest displeasure and condemnation at the Chinese government for resorting again to bullying tactics to suppress Taiwan’s international presence and deny the Taiwanese people the right to participate in international affairs,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement added that China’s action “further exposes its malevolent nature and deepens the chasm between the peoples on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

Importantly, however, in Harper’s radio interview she also highlighted that China had been aware of the decision, raising questions over the rationale behind the sudden about-face.

Meanwhile, local media in Guyana suggested that the initial agreement with Taiwan had been the result of pressure from the United States. One op-ed in Kaieteur News mockingly said of the deal that it appeared Guyana’s foreign policy was being made in the U.S. Embassy and called the deal a “major embarrassment” for Guyana.

Driving that perception, the U.S. Embassy in Guyana apparently preempted the official announcement, releasing a statement on February 3 “applaud[ing] the agreement to establish a Taiwan Office in Guyana.” According to the Guyana Chronicle, the agreement was only made public after the U.S. Embassy statement.

The chronology here suggests something more complicated than just Chinese pressure, although that was undoubtedly a factor. An agreement signed in January and quietly being implemented – apparently with China’s full knowledge – was suddenly made public by a U.S. Embassy statement. In the immediate aftermath, both Guyana and Taiwan issued their own statements and announcements – but the reference to “media reports” and “miscommunication” in Guyana’s eventual decision to rescind the agreement suggests Georgetown was not prepared to go public. Facing questions at home, and likely displeasure from Beijing, Guyana’s government decided to bow out.

And with that, Taiwan’s short-lived diplomatic win was no more.