Beijing struck a new victory against Taiwan on Tuesday as Panama established ties with China and abandoned the self-governing island.
China is pushing to isolate Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory.
In Panama, President Juan Carlos Varela announced the change, which entails breaking off formal relations with Taiwan, saying in a televised address that it represents the “correct path for our country.”
A joint statement released on Monday evening in Panama said Panama and China were recognizing each other and establishing ambassadorial-level relations the same day.
“The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that there is but one China in the world, that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” the statement read.
Taiwan warned that the move would further alienate the island of 23 million from the 1.37 billion Chinese living across the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwanese officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen, denounced the move as a betrayal and vowed to maintain the island’s sovereignty and international presence.
“Oppression and threats are not going to help in cross-strait relations. It will on the contrary increase the discrepancy between the people” of Taiwan and China, Tsai said at a news conference.
“We will not compromise and yield under threat,” the president said.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that in breaking ties, President Varela had ignored the friendship between their countries and the efforts that Taiwan had made to help Panama’s overall development. Panama had “submitted to the Beijing authorities for economic benefits” and “lied” to the government of Taiwan, the statement said.
Taiwan will immediately cut ties, cease all bilateral cooperation projects and pull its diplomatic staff and technical advisers out of the country, the ministry said, adding that it will not “engage in competition for money diplomacy with the Beijing authorities.”
“We express our strong protest and condemnation over the Beijing authorities luring Panama into breaking ties with us, oppressing our diplomatic space to maneuver and harming the feelings of the Taiwanese people,” the statement said.
Panama had been among the largest economies to have maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The island now has just 20 formal diplomatic partners, 11 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The island is also excluded from the United Nations and many other multinational bodies at China’s insistence.
At the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo signed a joint communique establishing diplomatic relations, followed by a champagne toast.
Wang said he was sure relations between the two countries would have a “bright future.”
Saint Malo said she hoped the new relationship would lead to trade, investment and tourism opportunities, in particular “exporting more goods from Panama to China.”
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949 and Beijing has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary.
While the sides had maintained an undeclared diplomatic truce for much of the past decade, relations have deteriorated under Tsai, who took over Taiwan’s presidency more than a year ago but has declined to endorse China’s view that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single Chinese nation.
The past year has seen China ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, barring its representatives from attending the World Health Organization’s annual conference and other international gatherings.
Panama may be the first of several Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch to China as Beijing steps up pressure on Tsai to recognize its “one China” principle, said Tang Yonghong, director of the Taiwan Economic Research Center at Xiamen University in southeastern China.
“Many Latin American countries want to have stronger ties with China for their national interests,” Tang said.
Although China refused to form such ties during the previous administration of China-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, it no longer has any such qualms, Tang said.
Beijing and Taipei have long competed with each other to win diplomatic recognition, at times enticing small or poor countries to switch with the promise of millions of dollars for public works projects.
China is the second-biggest client of the Panama Canal and the leading provider of merchandise to a free-commerce zone in the Panamanian city of Colon, on the country’s Caribbean coast.
Panama is the second country to switch its recognition to Beijing since Tsai took office last year, following a similar move by Sao Tome and Principe in December.
As recently as December, Panama’s deputy foreign minister had said he did not expect any change in Panama’s relations with Taiwan or China.
Panama is one of Taiwan’s oldest friends, but some diplomats in Beijing had speculated that the Central American country could become the next nation to break ties.
Tsai visited Central American allies earlier this year but did not stop in Panama.
Monday’s diplomatic move could also raise questions about the future of a Chinese-backed project to build another Central American waterway to rival the Panama Canal in Nicaragua.
Earmarked at a cost of $50 billion, the Nicaraguan scheme was met with widespread incredulity when it was announced in 2013, and critics have raised questions about its feasibility.