Although most of the world long ago established diplomatic relations with China and not Taiwan, the Trump administration slammed El Salvador this week after it broke relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing.
In a statement, the White House condemned El Salvador’s Aug. 20 announcement that it was switching diplomatic recognition to China in what the country’s president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, said was an effort to conform to the “inevitable trends of our times.”
Only 16 countries plus the Vatican maintain full diplomatic ties with Taiwan. More than 170 other nations — including the United States — recognize the government in Beijing under the so-called One China policy, which states that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.
Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province, not an independent state. Like many nations, Washington still has unofficial diplomatic and commercial ties to Taiwan, including large sales of military equipment.
Until recently, Central America was one of the last bastions of support for Taiwan, thanks to years of lobbying and lucrative incentives from Taipei. But that backing has ebbed as China’s international clout has grown, partly by spending hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and infrastructure programs overseas.
The U.S. government has expressed concern about China’s inroads in Latin America and Africa, warning that Chinese investment can land poor countries in heavy debt, and China often seizes infrastructure it has financed.
The rebuke of El Salvador is unusual, however. When Panama and the Dominican Republic broke ties with Taiwan last year, the White House expressed no public criticism.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a statement Thursday, said El Salvador’s leftist ruling party made the decision to cement diplomatic ties with Beijing “in a non-transparent fashion” and it “will have implications for decades to come” for the region.
She accused San Salvador of “receptiveness” to what she called China’s “political interference in the Western Hemisphere.” She said the Trump administration will reevaluate its diplomatic relations with El Salvador.
The party in the Salvadoran presidency, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, is partly made up of former Marxist guerrilla fighters who battled a U.S.-backed right-wing government in the 1980s until 1992, when the United Nations brokered a peace accord. Former guerrillas were incorporated into civilian life as part of the deal.
During the war years and since, Salvadorans have constituted one of the largest immigrant groups to arrive in the U.S., with the biggest concentrations in Southern California and Washington, D.C.
Until recently, relations between the two nations were cordial. But President Trump often has used harsh language to describe, and sometimes conflate, immigrants and the brutal MS-13 gang, which operates in part from El Salvador.
El Salvador is scheduled to hold presidential elections in March, and polls indicate that a right-wing party, Arena, which ruled through most of the war, will win.
The government did not respond immediately to the White House condemnation but has repeated the argument that the diplomatic shift was inevitable given the strategic importance and economic weight of China.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a hawk on Latin America who has emerged as a mover behind this administration’s policies in the region, has demanded that U.S. aid to El Salvador be slashed as punishment and said he advised Trump on the matter.
Some officials worry that El Salvador’s bustling La Union port could be refitted by China for military use. Senior Salvador officials say Beijing has offered to provide military weapons at a good price.