China charm offensive in El Salvador, Morocco plays peacemaker and a Davos alternative in Asia.
In late August, Qin Gang, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs – a usually poker-faced career-diplomat stationed in Beijing – was all smiles during an official visit to El Salvador (Central America’s smallest nation, wedged between Honduras to the east, Guatemala to the north and the Pacific Ocean on its western flank). The source of delight: festivities to mark a year since El Salvador’s formalisation of diplomatic ties with Beijing. China’s government was, understandably, keen to make a fuss of the anniversary.
El Salvador has made a clear choice in establishing a Chinese embassy on its soil: that accepting China’s diplomatic courtship is ultimately more important and more lucrative than sustaining diplomatic ties with a territory that remains a thorn in Beijing’s side: Taiwan.
It is a calculation that more nations are making as governments are swayed by Beijing’s handsome offers of investment in transport infrastructure, school buildings and even supplies of food (El Salvador accepted 3,000 tonnes of rice as part of the diplomacy deal with China). Only 15 countries now have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan (Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched sides to China in September). Buoyed by these recent successes, Beijing is likely to try and chip away at that number even further.
True to Taiwan:
The Holy See is the only European state to have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. However, Beijing’s move last year to formally recognise Pope Francis as the global head of the Catholic Church is widely seen as a move closer to China and away from Taiwan.
The only country in South America to maintain an embassy in Taipei (established in 1999). Taiwan announced in January a proposed €137m in financial co-operation projects in Paraguay to bolster that support.
Diplomats from Taipei and capital Tegucigalpa have reaffirmed ties. But given El Salvador’s switch and a cut in US aid budgets, China may fill the breach.
Does the world need another talking shop? Yes, according to Michael Bloomberg. The US media mogul’s New Economy Forum – billed as an alt-Davos – will be making its debut in China in November after the inaugural event in Singapore last year. Bloomberg is taking some heavy-hitters with him, led by the two Henrys: ex-treasury secretary Paulson and ex-secretary of state Kissinger.
Bloomberg Media ceo Justin Smith sees the two-day event as the perfect opportunity “to build bridges when dialogue can only offer positive benefit”. Even so his boss will want quantifiable gains, or at least a little one-upmanship over President Trump. Bloomberg’s latest turn as a businessman-cum-diplomat comes after the 77-year-old considered taking on his rival New Yorker by running for the Democratic nomination. Trump is likely to watch from afar, taking pot shots at Bloomberg’s deal-making skills. The Bloomberg website remains banned in China after a story ran about president Xi Jinping’s family wealth. A badge of honour for journalists; a mark of failure in the Trump White House.
In February, Morocco withdrew its fighter jets from the Saudi-led military coalition battling Houthi rebels in Yemen and recalled its ambassador to Riyadh in protest at the Saudi government’s actions. Many predicted a diplomatic fallout. But the recent attacks on Saudi oil fields appear to vindicate Morocco’s assertion that Yemen’s war would become a regional faultline.
Since Morocco rejoined the African Union two years ago after a 30-year absence, it has ploughed resources into becoming a diplomatic broker in Africa, the Middle East and the Arab Gulf. That’s rattled Saudi Arabia and the uae, who fear Morocco’s actions will undermine their own agendas.
Morocco’s diplomatic manoeuvres elsewhere have also gained traction: an increasing number of Latin American nations have signed up to Rabat’s attempts to resolve the decades-old stalemate in the Western Sahara, while its brokerage of talks between North and South Sudan have also garnered praise. Morocco may be a David among Goliaths in African and Arab diplomacy but it is right to hold firm.