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The Orient Express

The Orient Express
August 10
09:34 2019

195 – that is the number of countries in the world, if you count Kosovo and Taiwan. 193 are recognized by the United Nations, while The Holy See and Palestine are considered only as observer states. 17 – that is the number of countries that the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is claiming that they have diplomatic relations with. Taipei and Beijing have been at bitter odds since 1949 when former Chinese ruler General Chiang Kai-Shek was forced to flee the mainland after losing the Chinese Civil War to the communist forces of Chairman Mao Zedong. The two nations have since evolved into two distinct entities, literally separate by the Strait of Taiwan – one following a democratic capitalist system while the other a totalitarian communist one-party system.

The Chinese view the island with a population of 23 million as a renegade province that is still a part of greater China, in line with their “One China’ Principle. Since 1949 the capitalist tiny nation of Taiwan has developed into a powerhouse in Asia – financially, economically, militarily, agriculturally and in high technology. It has never shied away from China and has stood toe to toe with the much larger neighbour to be respected and recognized as a sovereign nation.

Following the break of China isolation policy after the visit of US President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, China quickly set its eyes on modernization and adopting a more USSR Gorbachev style Glasnost economic system rather than the rigid Planned Economy it had. The result has been some of the largest growth indices in the world, supported and spurred by the insatiable appetite of the Americans for consumer good. But have no doubt that while China outwardly has adopted quasi capitalist policies, it still remains an oppressive one-party totalitarian regime with a brutal record of human rights violation. As recently as 1989, in what is now known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the ruling Chinese government sent in tanks and military troops to open fire on unarmed, mainly student protesters who were demanding more democratic reforms. The result was an outright bloodbath and an embarrassment in the international community that the Chinese choose to now avoid discussing.

What Taipei has sought from the onset, since 1949, is international recognition and a better place at the UN table. Rather than open conflict or armed confrontation – which both countries want to avoid mainly because of their humanitarian and economic impact (despite its relative size to China, the Taiwanese military is no push over) – what they have done instead is to engage in what has been referred to in the international community as “checkbook diplomacy.” This is the foreign policy of openly using economic aid in the form of monies, grants, scholarships, low interest loans and investment in order to secure diplomatic favour and recognition.

Sound familiar? Taipei with a GDP of $1.30 trillion USD and Beijing with $14.21 trillion USD, means that there is plenty of money to go around. Over the years, Taiwan has been losing this battle mainly because China has more buying power. However, as Taiwan’s number of allies has dwindled to now only 17, it has held on more closely to the few remaining nations that support, and those nations in return, realizing their importance, have therefore demanded more or chose to play chess.

With less nations to compete for the same resources, developing countries such as Belize have benefited greatly from this relationship, especially in budget support which is essentially free money. Whether this money actually reaches to the bottom where it is needed the most is anyone’s guess, since neither Taiwan nor China care what type of regime they are propping up as long as they get that coveted diplomatic recognition – as in the case of Swaziland which is an absolute monarchy. However, China with its wider global influence and deeper pockets has engaged in a global campaign to cut the feet from under the Taiwanese by systematically getting countries to change their diplomatic alliances. Their methods are planned, strategic and targeted and have been seen in Africa, the Caribbean and most recently in Latin America with the changing of Dominica in 2004, Costa Rica in 2007, Panama in 2017 and more recently El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in 2018.

It therefore comes as no surprise that China would soon test the waters in Belize and the recent visit by the PUP representative for Caribbean Shores and entourage is probably the first litmus test – trust me, the Chinese are smiling. The visit whether endorsed, sanctioned or encouraged by the opposition People’s United Party is meaningless at this point – and whether he was invited by the Belize Chinese Association which in some countries is manned by representatives of the Chinese state is irrelevant because the picture tells a different story. It says that they are open to playing ball.

At this moment the Taiwanese are engaged in heavy back door damage control because their diplomatic number has the potential of decreasing by one, which is huge to them. Ambassador Li-Kuo Chen has just been handed a hot tamale and is probably the man in Belize with the largest headache, because I am sure he does not want to have the reputation of losing Belize on his watch. Even larger, is the political implication that this now has on tiny Belize. Lines have clearly been drawn, with the ruling UDP administration sticking with Taipei while the probable future administration seems to leaning or at the least open to listen to Beijing. Come election, take a wild guess who will be financing which political party and who would be more inclined to finance who. With just one visit, the party campaign financing may have changed from Canterbury to the Orient. The honest truth is that Musa’s trip could have waited until his party gets into power and that’s if they do. There is nothing that this visit could have achieved at this point that could not have been done in a presentation, through google or a video. But what it did most importantly, was send a signal.

I will confess that I have been one of the fiercest critics of the Taiwanese government’s involvement in Belize and it is nothing personal or remotely racial. Actually, I admire some of the things this tiny nation has done for itself in global finance, advanced military, high technology, progressive social services, efficient infrastructure and high-tech agriculture, given that they live on a huge, mostly barren rock. My fight has always been the exchange of a colonial master for an Asian one, with the Belizean people taking a permanent place at the end of the line. Taiwan’s goals in Belize and those of the man on the street somehow seem different and I will say without any apologies that I love Belize. This visit has opened a Pandora’s Box and we have now squarely placed ourselves in the big leagues, playing with the real big boys. I just hope that those that wish to join this game know how it’s played.

Before we rush to take sides, as Belizeans will do, and all those buzz words like economic benefit, poverty alleviation and growth start getting thrown around, ask yourself this one question – if you had the choice, where would you prefer to live? In mainland China or in Taiwan? The answer might best be the American model – have relations with both. Formal diplomatic with one and with the other, a not so formal relationship but still strong, and this way enjoy the benefits of both. Careful Belize – these are very choppy waters.

It’s all about the people!!!!

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