Taiwan’s Haiti ties in spotlight after president Moïse’s assassination

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A file photo of Taiwan’s embassy in Port-au-Prince. (Source: CNA)

By I-wei Jennifer Chang 

I-wei Jennifer Chang is a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute

On July 8, a group of armed men broke into Taiwan’s embassy in Haiti following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in his residence in Port-Au-Prince. After the security breach, Taiwan’s embassy granted Haitian police access to its premises to conduct an investigation, and the police detained 11 suspects who were sheltering inside. It is unclear why the armed men entered Taiwan’s embassy, which sat empty as embassy staff were working from home. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) condemned the “cruel and barbaric” assassination of the Haitian president, while President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) tweeted that Taiwan “stand[s] together with our ally Haiti in this difficult time.”

The latest political turmoil in Haiti has put a spotlight on Taipei’s relations with the politically unstable Caribbean country. Despite concerns that Beijing might take advantage of the current instability to build its presence in Haiti, Taiwan’s government, which has a history of bolstering its ties with Port-au-Prince throughout several political crises, said relations with its longstanding ally remain stable. While Taiwan has diplomatic reasons for assisting its Caribbean ally, there is concern that foreign assistance and intervention in Haiti may further weaken Port-au-Prince’s governance capabilities.

Two diplomatic allies fending off China

Haiti is one of Taiwan’s remaining 15 diplomatic allies and the most populous among Taipei’s four diplomatic allies in the Caribbean (the others being Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). This year marks the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of China (ROC) and Haiti in 1956. Speaking on the 65th anniversary on April 25—only a few months before his assassination—President Moïse said bilateral cooperation was “never shaken.” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said that Taiwan has been deeply involved in Haiti’s development and thanked Port-au-Prince for its support of Taiwan’s efforts to carve out more international space. [1] The Haitian government has voiced support for Taiwan’s participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the World Health Assembly.

Over the past several decades, China has been unsuccessful in persuading Haiti to establish diplomatic ties and sever relations with Taiwan. Notably, the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in April 2018, ending more than 75 years of diplomatic ties. The Dominican Republic was motivated by the prospect of increased trade benefits with China. By contrast, Haiti’s top trade partners are the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Furthermore, the political history of Haiti, a former French colony that gained independence in 1804, is marked by foreign domination. The frequent political and military interference by the United States, as well as US support and opposition to individual Haitian leaders, made Port-au-Prince subject to significant external pressure from Washington. After Beijing passed a national security law for Hong Kong in June 2020, the Moïse Administration joined the United States and other Western countries in raising concerns about the impact of this law on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. These factors may explain why Port-au-Prince has not succumbed to Beijing’s pressure to terminate ties with Taipei.

In the 1990s, China used its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council to punish Haiti over its ties with Taiwan. In 1996, China threatened to veto an extension of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, purportedly after Taiwan’s Vice President Li Yuan-tsu (李元簇) attended Haiti President René Préval’s inauguration. [2] Taiwan’s Ambassador to Haiti Yang Cheng-ta (楊承達) asserted in 2005 that China was angered by plans for Haiti’s interim President Boniface Alexandre to visit Taiwan, and thus aimed to reduce the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti “as an excuse to cause problems.” [3] Yang said, “The People’s Republic of China has been trying to obstruct relations between Taiwan and Haiti for a long time.” [4]

Paradoxically, while China has threatened to block extensions of various UN peacekeeping missions to Haiti in order to exert pressure on Taiwan-Haiti ties, it has also highlighted its troop contributions to these UN missions to boost its image in the Caribbean country. After an armed rebellion ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, China sent 125 riot police as part of a UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti, marking the first Chinese peacekeeping presence in the Western Hemisphere. [5] “China’s active involvement in peacekeeping missions of the United Nations, especially in Haiti which has not set up a diplomatic relationship with China, fully exhibits a peace-loving and responsible image of the country,” said Chinese Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei (孟宏偉) in 2004. [6] Beijing later withdrew its police unit after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010.

During episodes of political upheaval in Haiti, Taipei has reaffirmed its ties with Port-au-Prince in order to stave off a potential Chinese diplomatic offensive towards the Caribbean nation. During worsening political violence in Haiti in 2004, Taiwan evacuated its agricultural missions from the country; however, Taipei did not repatriate its ambassador, Hsieh Hsin-ping (謝新平), out of concern that Beijing might take advantage of Haiti’s internal turmoil to seize Taipei’s diplomatic ally. [7]

More recently, Beijing has sought to step up its charm offensive through offers of financial assistance and the financing of infrastructure projects in Haiti. In 2017, the Southwest Municipal Engineering and Design Research Institute of China (中國市政工程西南設計研究總院有限公司) signed a USD $30 billion agreement with a Haitian company to invest in several infrastructure projects, including an electricity-generating power plant, a new city hall, apartment complexes, and a railway from Port-au-Prince to the countryside.

Chinese commerce official commented in 2019, after several ROC allies had switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC, that if Port-au-Prince adheres to the “One-China Principle” (一中原則) both sides could move to establish diplomatic relations and China could provide interest-free loans and concessional loans to Haiti. In response to these Chinese aid pledges, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry responded that it is focused on providing foreign assistance that actually benefits the Haitian people.

Taiwanese assistance to Haiti

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, battered by chronic political instability, institutional weakness, poor governance capabilitiesnatural disasters—and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Haiti is also a country steeped in debt and has been borrowing money from Taiwan for several decades to finance its national development. In fact, Haiti’s two main foreign creditors are Venezuela and Taiwan, in addition to several multilateral creditors including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Taiwanese financial institutions that have provided loans to Haiti include the Land Bank of Taiwan (臺灣土地銀行).

Following a powerful earthquake that hit Haiti in early 2010, the international community, including the IMF and IDB, moved to cancel much of Haiti’s debt. France’s then Finance Minister Christine Lagarde asked all Paris Club members (mostly Western industrialized nations), as well as non-member Taiwan, to forgive Haiti’s debt. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) did not agree to cancel the debt, but asked MOFA to draw up a debt restructuring plan to help alleviate Port-au-Prince’s financial burden. Foreign Minister Timothy Yang (楊進添) said that MOFA would postpone the request for Haiti to repay the principal on the commercial loan so that Port-au-Prince could focus on disaster reconstruction. In addition to deferring loan payments, Taipei sent a search and rescue team to Haiti to assist with disaster relief in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

Despite the Haitian government’s apparent inability to repay its debts to Taiwan, estimated to be around USD $88 million, Taipei has continued to offer loans to Haiti. In January 2019, Haiti signed a USD $150 million concessional loan from Taiwan for electrical projects. Taipei said this loan to Haiti was aimed at building power grids in remote, rural areas, and at creating business opportunities for Taiwanese companies. Taiwan’s Overseas Engineering and Construction Corporation (OECC, 海外工程公司), which has completed 73 major engineering projects in Haiti over the past 20 years, is overseeing the electricity project that runs from Bois-Neuf in Artibonite to Léogâne.

The Taiwanese government decided to give Port-au-Prince a commercial loan for the electricity project, instead of providing direct financial assistance, perhaps in consideration of Taiwanese public opinion that did not support direct financing. Yet, whether Haiti can even pay off this and other loans is uncertain. At the end of 2019, Taiwan held USD $70.4 million in Haiti’s external debt, according to an IMF report released in April 2021.

Is foreign assistance hurting Haiti?

President Tsai has said that Taiwan is a willing participant in Haiti’s national development and that both sides have cooperated on public health, agriculture, and infrastructure projects. Despite a constant inflow of international aid and assistance for development and stabilization programs, Port-au-Prince has never learned good governance and has failed to provide fundamental public services for its people. Therefore, there is a need to re-evaluate whether foreign assistance programs to Haiti, including that of Taiwan, might actually be perpetuating the country’s dependency on external support—and perhaps even fostering corruption—instead of contributing to institutional strength, capacity, and resiliency.

Foreign assistance might actually diminish incentives for the Haitian government to implement political and economic reforms and improve good governance capabilities. On the surface, Taipei’s strategy of utilizing loan packages to shore up its ties with Port-au-Prince in the face of Chinese pressure appears to be contributing to Haiti’s development; however, it is also leaving Haiti in greater debt.

The main point: Taiwan’s priority is to safeguard its diplomatic relations with Haiti from Chinese pressure. However, Taipei’s financial assistance to its longstanding ally may be compounding Port-au-Prince’s governance issues.

This article originally published by Global Taiwan Institute Vol. 6, Issue 15, July 28, 2021, Global Taiwan Brief .

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