Landlocked Paraguay is the last South American country that still recognises Taiwan
NO PLACE on Earth is farther from Paraguay than Taiwan, its antipode. Yet Asunción, Paraguay’s steamy capital in the heart of South America, is full of symbols of friendship with an Asian island 20,000 km (12,400 miles) away.
In a leafy suburb looms a weathered statue of Chiang Kai-shek, who ran a Chinese government-in-exile in Taiwan until 1975. Not far away is the futuristic home of the Paraguayan Congress, built using Taiwanese funds in 2003. Just nearby is a replica of the Taipei 101 skyscraper. Unveiled in 2017 to mark 60 years of diplomatic ties, it is entwined with the national flowers of Taiwan (plum blossoms) and Paraguay (passion flowers).
United at first by anti-communist fervour, the two maintained a bond long past the end of the cold war. Today Taiwan sends Paraguay money, police vehicles and soap operas dubbed into Spanish, and trains students and army officers. Paraguay reciprocates with commodities, foodstuffs and diplomatic support.
The Chinese government in Beijing has long lobbied foreign counterparts to stop recognising Taiwan. In 1990, 28 countries considered Taiwan to be China’s government, compared with 139 recognising the People’s Republic. Today’s figures are 18 and 177. São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso have all switched to mainland China since late 2016. Of the 18 countries still in Taiwan’s camp, ten are in Latin America. But China’s development banks lent $150bn to the region from 2005 to 2017, a sum Taiwan cannot match.
Taiwan has reason to fear that its lone South American ally may be next. Mario Abdo Benítez, Paraguay’s president-elect, hopes to sign a trade deal with China via Mercosur, a trade bloc. According to an adviser, he wants to open a trade-and-investment office in Beijing without granting recognition. As one minister has acknowledged, Paraguay already exports goods to China indirectly—mainly soyabeans sold onwards from Uruguay.
But Taiwan is unflustered, says Diego Chou, its ambassador to Paraguay. Non-recognition is no barrier to trade with the People’s Republic, he notes: China is Taiwan’s principal trade partner. Last year Paraguay and Taiwan signed a deal scrapping tariffs on 54 Paraguayan products. Taiwan’s aid has paid for 4,500 units of social housing. In April the two countries announced the founding of a technological university in Paraguay. And Mr Abdo Benítez’s pick for foreign minister, Luis Castiglioni, is a known Taiwanophile who visits often.
“We’re not a superpower,” Mr Chou recognises. “But we’ve always been at Paraguay’s side.” For now, at least, Paraguay’s leaders still feel the same way.
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