Panama announced June 13 that it is breaking its long-standing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of establishing relations with China—a clear political coup for Beijing. The Panamanian statement said it recognized "only one China" and considers Taiwan to be part of it. The change was spurred by an unavoidable fact: China is the second most important Panama Canal user after the United States. Last year it sent 38 million metric tons of cargo through the interoceanic waterway, accounting for 19% of its traffic. The announcement of the diplomatic switch also comes just as Chinese enterprises began building a container port, with natural gas terminals, in Panama's Colón province, on the Atlantic side of the canal. "I think Dominican Republic and Nicaragua will soon follow," Mexico's former ambassador to China, Jorge Guajardo, tweeted soon after the announcement.
This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
We aren't sure how much method to place in Donald Trump's madness. Right on the heels of the outrage over his diplomatically incorrect telephone conversation with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen comes word that he's appointed Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China—news that will apparently be welcome in Beijing. The New York Times says that Branstad describes China's exceptionally authoritarian President Xi Jinping as an "old friend." Reuters tells us Branstad said he's had a "30-year friendship" with Xi, and added: "The president-elect understands my unique relationship to China." A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reciprocated the warmth, calling Branstad an "old friend" of China.
On Aug. 1, Indigenous People's Day, President Tsai Ing-wen issued a formal apology to Taiwan's aboriginal peoples for centuries of oppression, and outlined her policies for reconciliation. In a ceremony attended by leaders of aboriginal communities from throughout the island, she said: "For the past 400 years, each regime that came to Taiwan has brutally violated indigenous people's existing rights through military might and land looting." She pledged that her government will give indigenous communities greater autonomy, improve their land rights, and work to preserve native languages.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled (PDF) in favor of the Philippines on July 12 in its dispute with China over most of the South China Sea. Manila brought the case in 2013 disputing Beijing's territorial claims, a move China decried as "unilateral." The PCA concluded that China does not have the right to resources within its "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entire 3.5 million square-kilometer Sea—believed to be rich in oil and minerals. The tribunal found that none of the disputed Spratly Islands are "capable of generating extended maritime zones." Therefore, the tribunal wrote that it could "declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China." China entirely denies the PCA's jurisdiction in the matter, and rejected the ruling.
The annual Hong Kong vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre took place June 4 amid a split, with the city's biggest student union boycotting. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) broke from the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, to emphasize a "localist" position. An estimated 125,000 attended the vigil in Victoria Park, compared to 135,000 last year. Disturbingly, a localist protester even rushed the stage at the event, seizing a microphone to exhort: "We don't want a democratic China, we want Hong Kong independence!"
Hanoi saw a rare public protest on May 1, as hundreds demonstrated against a Taiwanese firm they accuse of causing mass fish deaths along 120 miles of Vietnam's central coast. A steel plant run by a subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastics is believed to be the source of a massive toxic release into the ocean that has killed tons of fish and affected thousands of families in fishing villages along the coast. The company released a statement saying it was "deeply shocked and sorry" for the fish deaths, without accepting culpability. Suspicions were heightened in late April when two divers contracted for construction at the plant on Vung Ang Bay were mysteriously hospitalized, and a third died. The Hung Nghiep Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant, still under construction, is slated to be the biggest steel mill in Asia.
A prominent veteran of the Tiananmen Square protests in China has dubbed US presidential hopeful Donald Trump a "privileged comeback king" and a threat to values of freedom that the United States represents. Taiwan-exiled Wuer Kaixi made his comments after Trump described the 1989 protest movement in Beijing as a "riot." Wuer Kaixi wrote on Facebook: "Speaking personally, after 27 years in exile from that 'riot'... I think I can speak for all fellow exiled and imprisoned Chinese in condemning Trump... I am not alone in appealing to the very same Americans who offered Chinese such as myself refuge when our own government deserted us to put aside partisan disputes and unite against Trump."