TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Taiwan and the United States have sent their first joint trade delegation to one of Taiwan's diplomatic allies as tiny, often impoverished countries keep turning instead to China, a source of aid for the developing world but a perceived threat to both delegation organizers.
In the first week of November, the delegation visited Saint Lucia, one of just 15 nations that recognize Taiwan diplomatically instead of China. They assessed ways offshore businesses could help the Caribbean country with infrastructure, trade and investment, the government-run Central News Agency in Taipei said.
"The way to consolidate diplomatic relationships is multi-dimensional," Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou said. "It should be an effort across different domains, and investment is one of them. We hope that it will help. We do hope that through this joint delegation, it can play an important role."
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry hasn't announced plans for future visits to other Taiwan diplomatic allies but doesn't rule out the idea.
Protecting fragile alliances
The prospect of more U.S. aid spearheaded by Taiwan should give allies in Latin America and the South Pacific new incentives to stick by Taipei instead of switching recognition to China, analysts believe. Those countries would see Washington as a potentially powerful benefactor, and some have received American assistance in the past.
Since 2016, seven countries have switched allegiance from Taiwan to China, which officials in Taipei say offers hefty sums of infrastructure aid. China bars any of its 180-plus allies from forming relations with Taiwan because it regards Taiwan as part of Chinese territory rather than a state entitled to its own diplomacy.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. The government in Beijing maintains that the two sides eventually unite.
"The current government needs desperately help on the part of the United States to enhance the further relationships with Caribbean countries, particularly when mainland China has played a heavy-handed role," said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan.
"At this moment I don't see that without help on the part of goodwill of the United States that anything else can be done," Liu said.
Common causes for Taiwan, US
Taiwan looks to its allies for a voice in the United Nations, where China prevents Taiwan from acquiring U.N. membership. They also offer Taiwan an international profile that could otherwise be overshadowed by the larger, more economically powerful China.
U.S. officials hope to stop their former Cold War foe China from expanding militarily, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. China's navy is passing ever more often into waters outside its coastal economic zones.
"Washington wants to help Taipei maintain whatever international standing and presence it has left not least because governments that still formally recognize Taipei can help speak up for it at the United Nations and in various world bodies," King said. "We the U.S. also want to ward off any new PLA (People's Liberation Army) naval berths in the Pacific."
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. government has helped Taiwan resist China by passing naval ships through the strait separating the two Asian rivals and selling advanced weaponry to Taipei.
After the South Pacific nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands broke ties with Taiwan in September, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington would provide $15 million to strengthen "governance" and "autonomy" of South Pacific countries, the State Department said online.
Taiwan has four remaining Pacific allies: Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.
Saint Lucia case
Members of the joint delegation to Saint Lucia have not finalized their "assessment" of what the country needs, Taiwan's Ou said.
Taiwan had helped the country before to develop health care, education, technology and "empowerment" for women and children, she said. Future investments there hinge on what private-sector Taiwanese investors want to offer, she added.
China is still likely to offer more than Taiwan or the United States can, King said. "Sadly, Beijing can more than match whatever we offer these governments not to switch," he said.
Saint Lucia's 200,000 people live at a higher standard than around much of the Caribbean because of growth in tourism. But the tiny island benefits from foreign direct investment in tourism as well as offshore banking and trans-shipments, U.S. research organization The Heritage Foundation says.
China made offers totaling at least $8.6 billion to the countries that switched allegiance since 2016, the foreign ministry in Taipei estimated in September.