Honduran President Xiomara Castro announced on Tuesday that she had instructed Honduras’ Foreign Ministry to begin the process of switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. The move will lower Taiwan’s number of remaining diplomatic allies to 13 and mark the fifth Central American ally that Taiwan has lost since 2017.
Castro’s announcement occurred several weeks before Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen is set to begin a visit to Central American allies of Taiwan. It is expected that Tsai will visit the United States on a stopover during this trip. According to a report by the Financial Times, Tsai is expected to give a speech at the Hudson Institute and meet with U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in his home state of California, where she will give a speech at the Reagan Library.
It was previously thought that McCarthy might travel to Taiwan to meet with Tsai, along the lines of the visit last August by then-U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but reportedly McCarthy was instead persuaded to meet with Tsai in the United States to avoid retaliation from China.
Before the Honduran elections in November 2021, it was anticipated that if Castro won, she would move to switch recognition to China. Changing diplomatic recognition to China was one of Castro’s campaign promises and, at the time, it was generally expected that Castro would defeat National Party candidate Nasry Asfura.
Castro seemed to drop this idea after being elected, responding to a tweet from Tsai congratulating her on her victory. Members of her incoming administration also suggested that, unlike previous reports, her stance on switching recognition to China was not set in stone. Tsai was sent an invite to Castro’s presidential inauguration in January 2022, with Vice President WIlliam Lai eventually attending on her behalf. But a January 2023 meeting between Honduras’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduardo Enrique Reina and Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Xie Feng signaled that the idea still held water.
Switching recognition to China has long been the stance of Castro’s left-wing Liberty and Refoundation Party. The party also called for switching recognition during the election campaign of its 2017 candidate, Salvador Nasralla, for whom Castro served as the running mate. Castro’s husband, former president and preceding Liberty and Refoundation Party leader Manuel Zelaya, continued to advocate for switching ties to China after Castro’s inauguration.
Zelaya served as president of Honduras from 2006 to 2009 until his ouster following a military coup. During his presidency, Zelaya steered Honduras away from the United States and toward alignment with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The left-wing viewpoints of Zelaya, Castro, and the Liberty and Refoundation Party may be another contributing factor in their desire to switch recognition to nominally communist China.
Either way, Taiwan’s relationship with the Castro administration proved awkward, given support by Taiwan for the preceding administration of Juan Orlando Hernandez. Despite Hernandez’s 2017 reelection victory in what many international observers viewed as a stolen election, Taiwan was quick to recognize Hernandez’s win. Tsai cited that Hernandez was the first president to congratulate her on her 2016 win, and she later started her 2017 visit to Central America by traveling to Honduras.
The Hernandez administration committed widespread human rights abuses, including police killings of journalists and activists. Hernandez is currently facing charges in the United States for links to drug and arms trafficking, having been extradited there after the end of his term. Although the U.S. recognized Hernandez as the winner of the 2017 election, relations later soured over Hernandez’s links to drug lords including Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known internationally as “El Chapo.”
The Tsai administration’s support for the Hernandez administration sat uncomfortably with efforts by Taiwan to distinguish itself from China by its democratic freedoms and human rights record. However, many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are countries with questionable human rights records, and Taiwan is accused of paying off the governments of these countries in return for diplomatic recognition, through slush funds provided to high-ranking politicians and infrastructure development projects. This is a practice that has commonly been referred to as “dollar diplomacy,” something that is possible because Taiwan is significantly larger than all of its diplomatic allies, whether assessed in terms of population or the size of its economy.
Another one of Taiwan’s allies, for example, is Eswatini, where one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs forcibly put down pro-democracy protests by force and is suspected to have a hand in the killings of political dissidents.
Clearly, Taiwan was also significant for Hernandez. Mere weeks before the elections that put Castro in power, Hernandez unexpectedly visited Taiwan to meet with Tsai and other senior government officials. The purpose of Hernandez’s visit was ostensibly to seek Taiwanese investment for a mega-port development project on Tiger Island in the Gulf of Fonseca and to commemorate 80 years of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Honduras. Yet Hernandez likely was hoping to shore up diplomatic support from Taiwan ahead of the elections.
The United States has become increasingly concerned about China’s poaching of Taiwan’s allies, with the TAIPEI Act passed in 2019 to encourage official allies of Taiwan to maintain ties, as well as supporting unofficial exchanges. As such, Hernandez could have been seeking support from the United States by showcasing ties with Taiwan. Using a show of support for Taiwan to signal alignment with the U.S., NATO, and Western powers was also an action taken by Central and Eastern European countries as Lithuania and Czechia in the past. But, as three of Hernandez’s children reside in Taiwan, there was speculation at the time that he might even have been hoping to flee to Taiwan to avoid persecution.
Hernandez would not be the only Central American leader to visit Taiwan shortly before an election. In February, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez made a trip to the island. As with Honduras, it is thought that Paraguay could potentially switch recognition to China if the candidate of Abdo Benitez’s Colorado Party is defeated, as Partido Liberal Radical Autentico candidate Efrain Alegre has stated he will do. If this occurs, Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic allies in Central and Latin America will be a concurrent phenomenon with the “Pink Tide” of leftist leaders coming to power in the region in recent years.
With the Chinese government having resumed the poaching of Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies since the Tsai administration took power, so as to constrain Taiwan’s international space, Taiwan finds itself unable to compete with China’s larger economic heft. In poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, China may also have geostrategic aims in mind, in light of the location of some of these countries relative to international maritime traffic.
It is unclear what has prompted Castro to decide to switch recognition to China at this point. China may have been able to offer more economic benefits than Taiwan could. But it is also probable that Castro’s decision to seek closer ties with China was made in consideration of the potential reaction from the United States. And it could also be simply a bid to strengthen Honduras’ leverage in seeking funds from Taipei or Washington.
In the past, countries have announced the recognition of China as a fait accompli, in a signing ceremony alongside Chinese diplomats establishing relations. The fact that Castro has only announced an interest in starting talks with China signals she may be open to changing her mind yet again, if Taiwan offers the right incentives.
News of Castro’s decision comes shortly after reports broke of a letter by David Panuelo, the president of the Federated States of Micronesia, to other national leaders detailing efforts by China to intimidate him. In the letter, Panuelo outlined some of the potential benefits of recognizing Taiwan instead.
By contrast, ties between Taiwan and Guatemala seem set to remain stable, with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro visiting last August. When assuming his post in December, Guatemalan Ambassador to Taiwan Oscar Adolfo Padilla Lam claimed that Guatemala planned to initiate a summit for allies of Taiwan. The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that it has not received any information on this planned summit; as a result, it is not likely to take place during Tsai’s Central American trip.
Nonetheless, it is probable that Taiwan’s loss of yet another diplomatic ally will lead to criticisms of the Tsai administration by the opposition KMT. It is unlikely that the loss of Honduras or any other diplomatic partner will be a significant issue for the upcoming 2024 presidential election cycle in Taiwan. But China’s poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies with the DPP in power will be used by the KMT to justify its claim that it is the only political party in Taiwan that is able to maintain stable relations with the CCP, a claim that the party has traditionally used in election campaigns.