Shortly after President-elect Donald Trump angered China with what they saw as a rogue call to its adversaries in Taiwan, the powerful communist nation is making moves to establish official ties with the Dominican Republic as it looks for more friends in Latin America who support its national interests.
Once content to stick primarily to economic opportunities in Latin America, China is forging a stronger political push in the region. Its efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the Dominican Republic may be considered a small thing, but the pointed action could grow into an all-out proxy war with China if other Latin American countries follow, said Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China.
“It’s a shot across the bow from China saying, ‘We won’t go quietly on the Taiwan issue, and we can get allies in other parts of the world that used to be in your sphere,’” Guajardo said in an interview.
Latin America has found itself in the middle of a sensitive political skirmish between Trump and China, one that goes beyond U.S. or China interests in Latin America and centers on deeper, more sensitive issues in Asia over Taiwan’s independence.
A 10-minute call between Trump and Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen after the November election sparked intrigue because such a conversation hadn’t happened in decades.
Mainland China and Taiwan both adhere to the idea that there is only one China, so if a country forges ties with either Beijing or Taipei, it must end ties with the other.
Trump, meanwhile, has threatened to withdraw from various trade agreements with Latin American countries, raising concerns that the United States is closing its lucrative market and giving up its role in helping organize the hemisphere’s economy.
Guajardo doesn’t think the Dominican Republic would even be considering switching its allegiance from the Republic of China’s government in Taipei over the People’s Republic of China’s in Beijing if Trump wasn’t pulling back from Latin America.
Trump has not shied away from confronting Beijing, and he openly questioned whether the United States should keep its long-standing position that Taiwan is part of “One China.”
His phone call with Tsai angered China, which considers Taiwan a province and not an independent country. An editorial in a state-run newspaper chided Trump “as ignorant as a child” on foreign policy.
China’s interest in Latin America is not new. Beijing has been building up its presence in Latin American and Caribbean states for years. But the focus has largely been economic and the politics were underplayed, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.
China already is the region’s second-largest commercial partner after the U.S. It imports 40 percent of the global production of soybeans – the vast majority of which comes from Brazil and Argentina – and a third of the iron ore, which also largely comes from Latin America, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a private research organization.
Farnsworth sees a new urgency from China as Trump raises questions about the independence of Taiwan.
“The way I’m reading this is to the extent that the United States wants to play in the South China sea, China is going to feel unencumbered by saying, ‘We can do that too and we’re going to work with countries in Latin America to support our core interests which may very well turn out to be opposed to the United States,’” Farnsworth said. “This is a huge issue.”
The Trump transition team did not return a request for comment. But some familiar with the incoming administration’s thinking feel this is nothing new and simply an extension of China’s outreach in the region. Former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich said China’s outreach in Latin America began long before last month’s phone conversation between Trump and the Taiwan president.
“There is a tendency all of a sudden in Latin America to blame Trump for everything, the bad weather, crop failures, all this stuff,” said Reich, who has shared ideas with the transition team.
The Dominican Republic would not be the first country in the region to break ties with Taiwan. In 2007, Costa Rica broke ties with Taiwan after establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. Less than two dozen countries’ governments still have a foreign relationship with Taiwan; most are concentrated in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
China has pressed others in the region to end their relationships with the island. China’s President Xi Jinping used a gathering of hemispheric leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru to tout new strategic partnerships and trade deals.
“China will not shut the door to the outside world, but open itself even wider,” Xi told business leaders in November.
The Chinese government also issued an 11-page policy paper in November that calls for greater cooperation on international issues including global governance.
If the Dominican Republic does switch allegiances, other nations are likely to follow, said Guajardo. Taiwanese media reports El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama could follow. Others will be tempted, Guajardo said.
“It just goes to show you that you can’t turn your back on one part of the world without it having repercussions in other parts of the world,” he said.