On November 28, Hondurans will take to the polls in a presidential election that will likely have a major impact on the Central American nation’s foreign policy. Popular opposition candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya has publicly pledged to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (RoC), to Mainland China (the PRC). Castro has long been a fixture of the Honduran political establishment and has been gaining momentum in the lead-up to elections.
Besides possible domestic shifts in store for Honduras, for Taiwan, the loss of another diplomatic ally would constitute a significant blow. Particularly, as Central America remains one of the last regional redoubts of Taipei’s official diplomatic partners. The PRC considers the self-ruling island a renegade province occupied by the remnants of a predecessor government, and Beijing has made no secret of its aspirations to achieve national unification. Should the new government in Tegucigalpa choose to sever ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing, this may have wider implications for both Central America and for Taiwan’s relationship with Honduras going forward.
Uneasy but Sturdy
Honduras’ and Taiwan’s bilateral relations date back to 1941, with both sides celebrating the 80th anniversary this year. Well into the 1980’s the diplomatic relationship between Tegucigalpa and Taipei was structured around Cold War geopolitics and a shared antipathy to communism. Both Taiwan and Honduras were long governed by right-wing military governments for much of this time but both began to liberalize in the 1980s and 1990s and began to form a more nuanced relationship, largely based on trade, development assistance for Honduras, and diplomatic support for Taiwan in international organizations.
Taiwan is in a unique situation as it is governed and functions as a country, but due to its unique relationship with the Mainland and the “One China principle” most states have broken off relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing. Even the United States does not maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, despite being a major supporter of the island and its democratic government. As the PRC has grown wealthier and more assertive, the small number of states still recognizing the RoC has declined, and at present only 15 governments still maintain official ties with Taiwan, including Paraguay and the Marshall Islands.
But the unusual diplomatic situation that Taiwan and its partners find themselves in has led to almost comical situations. In 2012 then Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, caused consternation in both Taiwan and mainland China when he appeared to suggest that his administration was aiming to open relations with both. Authorities in Taiwan at that time strongly rebuked the move, while Beijing rejected the notion of dual recognition. While it seemed that Tegucigalpa might be willing to break off relations with Taipei then, an unspoken diplomatic truce between Beijing and the less-independence inclined government of Ma Ying-jeou forestalled a break between Tegucigalpa and Taipei.
Overall, relations between Taipei and Tegucigalpa appear amicable under current President Juan Orlando Hernández. During his first year in office, Hernández and then-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou strengthened bilateral cooperation, with Taiwan transferring UH-1H helicopters for Honduras’ military and offering financial support for medical supplies.
Nevertheless, democratic Taiwan’s ties with Honduras are marred in controversy. Following Hernández’s re-election in 2017, he ordered the military policy to harshly crack down on protestors who accused the president of electoral fraud when the release of the election results was delayed by five days. Despite international condemnation, Tsai Ing-wen congratulated Hernández’ on securing a second term in office. For Tsai, it appears that retaining diplomatic allies and outmaneuvering Beijing to pressure Honduras to switch diplomatic allies trumped calling out Hernández’s human rights violations.
Yet even Hernández did not conceal that China’s growing presence represented an “opportunity” for the region at large. His remarks echoed a general frustration among Central American nations in 2018 following Washington’s decision to drastically slash financial support during the Trump administration. Despite Hernández publicly acknowledging that Beijing’s aid is welcome, he later reaffirmed that ties with Taiwan are not up for negotiation and that, in fact, his government was seeking “a commercial relationship.”
The End of an Era?
With polls from October suggesting that Castro is in the lead, Taiwan-Honduras relations face an uncertain future. A last-minute state visit by Hernández to Taipei to meet with Tsai Ing-wen was, at best, an effort to calm troubled waters. Following an official invitation from Tsai, the visit vividly highlighted Taiwan’s precarious diplomatic situation and reflected the importance of resisting the shrinking influence among its remaining Central American diplomatic partners for Taipei. Nonetheless, Hernandez’s reassurances were merely implied and circumstantial, as his administration is not standing for reelection.
Should Castro, who has pledged to rid the country of corruption associated with Hernandez’s time in office and tackle social inequality, win the presidential elections and sever ties with Taiwan, it would herald the end of an era. For the left-leaning presidential hopeful, a mix of ambitious promises of financial assistance from Beijing, including development assistance for a major port project in the Gulf of Fonseca, and the prospect of access to the Chinese market, has likely proved too tempting to resist. Honduras’ economy is in tatters, with the Covid-19 pandemic dealing yet another blow to a nation already grappling with financial hardship.
Overtures from Beijing promising a financial windfall for a hardpressed economy certainly played a role in motivating neighboring El Salvador’s diplomatic realignment in 2018 after the election of Najib Bukele. Yet, recent reports suggest that many of the development projects in El Salvador have not materialized and in some cases resulted in disproportionate benefits for Chinese rather than Salvadorian companies.
Apart from further diminishing Taiwan’s international space, losing Honduras as a diplomatic partner would also curtail Taipei’s ability to shore up support in international organizations. For Honduras, meanwhile, a diplomatic switch might appear initially favorable given current circumstances. Yet, as the Salvadoran case demonstrates, Chinese largesse is by no means a panacea for the major structural issues that plague Honduran society, including widespread corruption, poverty, and unemployment. Moreover, with Sino-American relations continually deteriorating, both Honduras and Taiwan could face being entangled in a geopolitical tug-of-war which could have far-reaching long-term consequences.