San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hello China, Goodbye Taiwan

Country renews diplomatic ties with China, ending six decades of friendly relations with Taiwan.

President Oscar Arias this week announced that Costa Rica has established diplomatic relations with China – a move that ends more than six decades of friendly relations between Costa Rica and Taiwan.

The announcement late Wednesday also brought to an end months of rumors about a  possible Costa Rica-Taiwan split, which Ariashad denied right up to Wednesday morning while also expressing interest in increased trade with China, the country’s second-largest trading partner behind the United States.

Despite Costa Rica’s diminutive size, its decision packs a punch for Taiwan, whose leaders had expressed concerns that a break in ties might inspire other Central American countries to follow suit. Costa Rica was one of only 25 countries in the world that formally recognize Taiwan as a country, while the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, as a wayward Chinese province.

Following the Wednesday announcement, the Taiwanese Embassy in San José issued a scathing statement that announced Taiwan would “end diplomatic relations with Costa Rica and put an end to all the projects and assistance and cooperation plans between the two countries.”

It continued: “The Costa Rican government will be accountable for all the responsibilities and consequences of turning its back on 63 years of friendship with Taiwan.”

Arias said he made the decision not because of ideological reasons, but rather out of “fundamental realism.”

“The reasons are very obvious,” he said, adding that relations with mainland China will “bring greater well being and development for Costa Rica, which cannot remain static (in) a changing world.”

According to Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, who “normalized’’ relations with China June 1 during a meeting with officials in Beijing and informed the Taiwanese Embassy in San José during a meeting shortly before Arias’ public announcement Wednesday, Taiwan and Costa Rica will now begin the process of closing their respective embassies.

Stagno said plans with China include a possible free-trade agreement and a ministerial council to begin a binational dialogue.

Arias has expressed interest in increased trade with China since before taking office last year, but has consistently denied rumors that he would break off relations with Taiwan – right up until Wednesday morning, when he told wire service ACAN-EFE that talk of a pending break was “speculation.”

During his presidential campaign in 2006, Oscar Arias suggested that recognition of Taiwan as a nation might end under his presidency (TT, May 12, 2006), but he had backed off since his inauguration.

At a United Nations gathering in New York last September, Arias met with Chinese representatives and talked up greater trade relations, but denied the possibility of opening diplomatic relations.

Speculation on the evolving relationships flared up again last month when Costa Rica voted against placing Taiwan’s possible membership in the World Health Organization on the agenda, saying the agenda was already set. Costa Rican officials downplayed the incident as a procedural vote, not a political statement, and said there were no plans to severe ties with Taiwan.

Costa Rica and Taiwan have had a close relationship over the years, with Taiwan donating millions of dollars in aid to Costa Rican.

To name just a few projects, in 2003 construction was completed on the $26 million bridge over the TempisqueRiver in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, known as the Taiwan-CostaRicaFriendshipBridge (TT, April 11, 2003).

In 2004, the Foreign Ministry came under fire for accepting $4.8 million in unaccounted-for funds from Taiwan (TT,May 28, 2004).

Taiwan also pledged $15 million to rebuild the CalderónGuardiaHospital, which burned down in 2005 (TT, Dec. 5, 2005), gave two dozen motorcycles and six quads to the country’s newly formed Tourism Police in March, and just last month committed to spending $2.6 million on three new pedestrian walkways in San José.

However, Costa Rica’s trade with China has grown significantly during recent years (see separate story), a fact Arias alluded to during the conference.

He also recognized Taiwan’s significant contributions over the years, and said he will personally take charge of securing new funding for pending projects to be funded by Taiwan, such as the hospital and a highway from the western Central Valley town of San Ramón to the Northern Zone city of Ciudad Quesada.

Political reaction to the news was mixed. The pro-business Libertarian Movement strongly criticized the move, calling it “unacceptable” and demanding “a clear explanation from President Arias of the interests behind this unexpected decision toward a friend.”

Broad Front legislator José Merino, a regular Arias critic, applauded the decision, saying it “opens opportunities, not only commercial, but political and cultural.”

Antonio Barrios, a professor at the School of International Relations at the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José, said he thinks it is unlikely China will offer the same financial support Taiwan has.

“China isn’t going to give a cinco for those things,” he said (referring to a coin discontinued years ago worth five-hundredths of a colón). What China offers instead is trade opportunities.

“It’s clear that Taiwan is going to keep losing allies because China can offer those trade advantages,” Barrios said.

President Arias, asked whether he thinks his decision might cause a domino effect of similar withdrawals of support throughout Central America, said only that he prefers “not to speculate about the consequences my decision might bring.”


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