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Honduras deals Taiwan a blow by switching allegiance to China


Taiwan and China have long been locked in a fight for diplomatic recognition. And now Honduras has dealt Taiwan a blow, newly aligning itself with China. Taiwan's lost recognition from nine countries in the last eight years, in large part because China is aggressively courting the Asian island's few remaining partners. And NPR's Emily Feng is in Taipei and joins us now to explain. Welcome.


SUMMERS: So, Emily, what is behind this decision by Honduras to switch relations?

FENG: Well, if you ask Taiwan, it was all about money. Here's Taiwan's foreign minister, Joseph Wu.


JOSEPH WU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying here to reporters that Honduras demanded what he called a high price to maintain relations, and Taiwan does not compete in checkbook diplomacy with China, is what he said. In total, Wu, the foreign minister, claims Honduras wanted $2.4 billion U.S. for a hospital, a dam and help with paying back loans - a sum that Honduras, by the way, has confirmed - and will also allege Beijing was giving high sums to Honduran officials to sway allegiances. China has denied all of this, but either way, this is still a really big blow for Taiwan because it fits a broader pattern in that China has been really successful in diplomatically isolating Taiwan, snatching away nearly half of its remaining partners in the last eight years through a combination of economic incentives and lobbying, especially among island nations in the Pacific, but in this case, in Central America.

SUMMERS: OK. And give us some of the backstory here. Why do Beijing and Taipei compete so hard for these countries' recognition?

FENG: It stems from a civil war going back more than 70 years ago, and that's led to something that Beijing calls the One China principle - that there's this one country called China, and it's Beijing, not Taipei, that's the rightful government for that entire territory, which includes Taiwan, by the way. And that's why, to this day, China continues to say it wants to reunify Taiwan even if that requires a military invasion. And it's why, to Taiwan, this steady elimination of countries that recognize it rather than China feels so existential. And it's a reason why Taiwan is often not present at multilateral institutions.

SUMMERS: Taiwan is now down to 13 countries that recognize it, and that's a number which includes the Vatican. And, I mean, that is just not that many.

FENG: Exactly. And so Taiwan's foreign minister and some lawmakers in Taiwan's current ruling party are starting to say the number of formal alliances might not be so important. It's still important, but not the most important, and that they might even accept it if countries recognize both Taiwan and China. Now, that's something that China's not going to accept, but it shows a flexibility in mindset. Here's Taiwanese legislator Wang Ting-yu, who is on Taiwan's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Legislative Committee, this week.


WANG TING-YU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says here, "if like-minded countries who share our political ideals, who have democracy, want to deepen whatever relationship they have with Taiwan right now, Taiwan's going to accept that." Essentially he's saying, we want quality over quantity of relationships. And actually, in practice, this is already what is happening. Taiwan's most staunch supporters on the world stage, including the U.S., by the way, do not recognize Taiwan. They recognize China. But we've seen the U.S. and European countries send literally dozens of delegations to the island in the last year, essentially upgrading their relationship with Taiwan in all but name. And so formal recognition is important, but it's becoming slightly less important.

SUMMERS: NPR's Emily Feng in Taipei. Emily, thank you.

FENG: Thanks, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.