Taiwan Just Lost Panama to China—But It Doesn't Matter

Liberty Square main gate, Taipei. Pixabay/Public domain

Absent a working Taiwan strategy, Beijing has ramped up the pressure to isolate Taipei internationally.

The loss of Panama (and any future ally) carries symbolic—and perhaps psychological—implications, but it does not in any way undermine Taiwan’s ability to function as a sovereign state. In fact, substantial—albeit unofficial—relations with major economies like the United States, the European Union, Japan and the many countries targeted by Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is what underpins Taiwan’s resilience. As long as this international support continues, Taiwan will have no difficulty weathering the loss of small, even if official, allies. None of Taiwan’s official allies, and perhaps no combination thereof, are key to Taiwan’s survival, which undermines the ability of Beijing to use diplomatic theft as a means to coerce the Taiwanese into submission. Moreover, we should also note that the closing of Taiwan’s embassy in Panama by no means signifies that Taiwan will no longer be able to conduct business with Panama or move goods through the Canal; thus, even the economic impact of Tuesday’s developments are likely to be marginal. 

This was reflected throughout the day in Taiwan’s calm reaction to the news about Panama. Pragmatism and resilience characterized most of the reactions. Some of Taiwan’s rambunctious evening talk shows didn’t even open their programs with Panama, focusing instead on the death of a filmmaker in a helicopter crash at the weekend.

President Tsai, meanwhile, delivered an uncharacteristically combative statement that was sure to resound with a majority of her constituents, who also have accused her of being “too soft” on China in the past year.

“Coercion and threats will not bring the two sides closer. Instead, they will drive our two peoples apart. On behalf of the 23 million people of Taiwan, I declare that we will never surrender to such intimidation,” Tsai said.

“It is true that for a long period of time, Taiwan's international situation has been difficult,” she continued. “It is also true that pressure from the other side of the strait has never stopped. But the less favorable our situation is, the more resolute we must be in upholding our belief in freedom and democracy. We must stand together and ensure that Taiwan's 23 million citizens continue to determine our own destiny.”

“As president, my greatest responsibility is the protection of our national sovereignty,” Tsai said. “Greater challenges will only bring greater resolve. Our confidence as a people should not, and will not, be easily defeated. We will endure.”

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Fellow with the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, UK, an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), chief editor of the Taiwan Sentinel and project manager for the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy’s Taiwan Democracy Bulletin.

Image: Liberty Square main gate, Taipei. Pixabay/Public domain