After Diplomatic Switch, Nicaragua Seizes Taiwan’s Embassy and Hands It Over to China

This weekend, Nicaragua and Taiwan butted heads over the terms of their diplomatic divorce. Nicaragua suddenly cut ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing in early December, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega gave Taiwanese diplomatic staff two weeks to vacate the country. Pressed for time, Taiwan donated its embassy property to the Nicaraguan Catholic Church before the deadline, but Ortega intervened on Sunday by ordering the Taiwanese assets to be confiscated and handed over to Beijing. Lawrence Chung from the South China Morning Post reported on the diplomatic controversy:

Accusing Nicaragua of defying international laws and protocols, the Taiwanese foreign ministry said President Daniel Ortega’s government had illegally confiscated the embassy compound in Managua, the capital, and other assets belonging to Taiwan after switching ties from Taipei to Beijing on December 9.

“Regarding the Nicaraguan government’s illegal seizure of our embassy properties and unlawful transfer of them to the People’s Republic of China, it is totally unacceptable to our government and for this we express our strong protest,” the ministry said on Monday.

[…] Citing a statement by the Nicaraguan government, [the Ortega government] said the move was in line with the one-China policy of Managua that Taiwan was an inseparable part of China and therefore the People’s Republic of China government enjoyed ownership of the assets, which included furniture and facilities.

[…] [The Taiwanese foreign ministry] accused the Ortega government and Beijing government of working together against Taiwan and the Catholic Church. [Source]

Joseph Yeh from Focus Taiwan, Taiwan’s English-language national news agency, described how the Taiwanese government decided to donate its assets due to Ortega’s abrupt deadline to evacuate:

According to [Taiwan’s] MOFA, Taiwan transferred its assets to the Catholic Church of Nicaragua because the Ortega government set a two-week time limit for all Taiwanese staff at its embassy and technical mission in the country to leave before Dec. 23.

Such a demand was unreasonable as it is customary for countries to take at least a month to recall their respective personnel following the severance of diplomatic relations, MOFA said.

[…] To ensure its assets were properly taken care of, Taiwan’s embassy decided to sell its property to the Archdiocese of Managua, for the symbolic amount of US$1, it noted.

Both sides sealed the property transfer deal witnessed by a local lawyer on Dec. 22, with the Catholic Church of Nicaragua promising to make good use of the assets, according to MOFA. [Source]

One significant factor in Ortega’s decision to drop Taiwan for China was diminishing U.S. leverage over Nicaragua. Ben Blanchard and others from Reuters described how worsening ties between the U.S. and Nicaragua provided an opening for China:

The break with Taiwan is a blow to the United States. It follows months of worsening ties between Ortega and Washington, and came on the day the U.S. State Department said it had slapped sanctions on Nestor Moncada Lau, a national security adviser to Ortega, alleging he operates an import and customs fraud scheme to enrich members of Ortega’s government.

[…] Last month U.S. President Joe Biden ripped into Ortega, calling Nicaragua’s presidential election a “pantomime” as the former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War adversary of the United States won election for a fourth consecutive term.

One Taiwan-based diplomatic source, familiar with the region, said the move was not a surprise given Washington’s lack of leverage with Ortega due to the sanctions, and that looking to China for aid and support was a natural course of action.

“It appears that Ortega had had enough,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Source]

Ortega’s decision to recognize Beijing over Taipei was likely coordinated with the Chinese government. The announcement occurred after a meeting in Tianjin between China’s deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu and a Nicaraguan delegation led by Ortega’s son. Chinese aid arrived almost immediately. As the BBC reported, the day after Ortega cut ties with Taiwan, the Chinese government agreed to send one million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Nicaragua

Government representatives returned to the Central American state on Sunday with news of the donation.

Local media broadcast clips showing an Air China plane landing with the first 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine.

Officials said they were “extremely grateful” for restored relations with Beijing.

“We have come back with this great news that we have brought this donation of one million vaccinates to the Nicaraguan people,” said Laureano Ortega Murillo, the son of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and one of his advisers.

Currently, only 38% of Nicaragua’s adult population is fully vaccinated but at least 67% have received one dose. [Source]

The hasty severance of ties may prove awkward for certain diplomats. Taiwan’s former ambassador to Nicaragua, Ivan Lee, began his role only one month ago, and the former Nicaraguan ambassador to Taiwan, Mirna Rivera, only 25 years old, graduated from Taipei’s Ming Chuan University on a foreign student scholarship from the Taiwanese government. In early December, she twice refused to meet with the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, a mere day after breaking ties with Taiwan, the Nicaraguan government offered Nicaraguan citizenship to the previous Taiwanese ambassador Jamie Wu and his wife, ostensibly in honor of Wu’s 14 years of service in the country, where he had served until his retirement in November. It is not clear whether Wu has accepted the offer, and the Taiwanese government has reiterated that as a former public servant, Wu is forbidden from sharing classified information with third parties. 

Taiwan’s past attempts at bolstering its relationship with Nicaragua seem to have fallen flat. In 2017, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited the country and pledged deeper trade and investment ties. During the visit, Ortega vowed to fight “a just battle, one of principles,” for Taiwan’s international recognition. Erin Hale from Al Jazeera detailed Taiwan’s previous economic support to Nicaragua

Ortega’s government had relied on financial support from Taiwan including a $3m donation to police in 2018, and a $100m loan in 2019.

Other foreign aid from Taiwan, however, has taken the form of more benign school lunch projects, health care and agricultural development projects, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. [Source]

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “extreme regret” at Nicaragua for having “unilaterally terminated diplomatic relations.” China’s Foreign Ministry called Nicaragua’s decision “the right choice that is in line with the global trend and has people’s support,” while the U.S. State Department described Ortega’s November election a “sham” and stated that “without the mandate that comes with a free and fair election, Ortega’s actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people.” Chiming in, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin wrote that “Nicaragua flatly ending ties with Taiwan island is justice served.”

Nicaragua previously cut ties with Taiwan in 1985, when Ortega was president, but restored them in 1990, under Ortega’s successor Violeta Chamorro. This latest rupture adds Nicaragua to a series of countries that have severed official diplomatic ties with Taiwan over the past few years. In 2018, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, and the Dominican Republic cut ties, and in 2019 Kiribati and the Solomon Islands followed suit, a move which led in part to recent unrest in the Solomon Islands. Honduras could also join that group: earlier this month, President-elect Xiomara Castro appeared to be toying with the idea of switching ties to Beijing


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