TAIPEI, Taiwan – The visit by Paraguay's president to Taiwan this week offers a diplomatic lifeline to the self-governing island democracy whose international breathing space is being steadily chipped away at by Beijing.
Horacio Cartes and his delegation were scheduled to attend events Wednesday commemorating 60 years of ties between Taiwan and the landlocked nation, the island's only diplomatic ally in South America.
Cartes' three-day visit comes almost a month after Panama switched relations from Taipei to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with just 20 diplomatic allies, mainly small developing nations in Central America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and Africa. That development set alarm bells in Taipei.
"As far as the (Taiwanese) government is concerned, there is a growing sense of unfairness and unreasonableness by Beijing," said Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia program at The Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. "It is hard to see a way out."
At a welcoming ceremony in the capital Taipei, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen issued a "most heartfelt welcome" to Cartes.
Cartes, who is making his third visit to Taiwan as president, offered words of comfort, saying : "Based on ongoing and earnest friendship, as well as mutual support, we will continue to reinforce Taiwan and Paraguay's inseparable cooperation and exchange programs."
Beijing renewed a campaign to diminish the island's global standing last year after cutting ties with Tsai's independence-leaning government, which has refused to endorse China's insistence that Taiwan is part of China.
Along with plucking away Panama and two of Taiwan's African allies, Beijing has barred Taiwan's representatives from attending the World Health Assembly and other gatherings to which they formerly had access.
Since Panama broke away, Taiwan's diplomats have redoubled their efforts to shore up ties with the island's remaining allies, with analysts saying such relationships remain vital to Taiwan retaining its claimed status as a sovereign nation and maintaining its international profile.
Visits to allies in the Western Hemisphere also permit Taiwan's leaders to stop off in the United States to meet with American politicians and other supporters. The U.S. switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979, eight years after Taiwan's seat at the United Nations was given to China.
The loss of Panama had a major impact on Taiwanese public opinion and served as something of a wakeup call to the government, said Alexander Huang, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University.
That's partly because the relationship stretched back more than 100 years when the Republic of China — the official name of Taiwan's government — ruled all of China from the mainland, Huang said. The ROC was moved to Taiwan in 1949 after Mao Zedong's Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists from the mainland amid civil war.
Panama, home to the canal that is crucial to global trade, was also Taiwan's last partner of major strategic importance and its shift aroused fears of a domino effect on other allies, he said.
"So we need to make sure that even with the worst case scenario, we will try our very best with our counterparts to keep our interests protected, keep our personnel, and that our interests in those countries continue," Huang said.
And despite the challenges, Huang said he sees no prospects for cutting a deal with Beijing on endorsing its "One China" principle in return for maintaining Taiwan's international presence.
"Everyone in Taiwan across party lines understands that China can continue to humiliate Taiwan because they have the power," Huang said. "But to continue this kind of game would not necessarily bring about a Chinese unification or win over the minds and hearts of Taiwan people."
Beijing's efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically have been "a big factor in the rise of pro-independence sentiment," said Ashley Esarey, a Taiwan scholar at Canada's University of Alberta.
However, maintaining relations with a small number of states is less important than it was two decades ago, since Taiwanese have shifted their thinking to emphasize "informal, substantive relationships over formal diplomatic partnerships," said Taiwan politics expert Shelley Rigger, a political scientist and longtime observer of Taiwanese politics at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Rigger and other observers said they expect Beijing to continue picking off Taiwan's remaining allies — including Paraguay — as a means of piling the pressure on Tsai.
China's campaign to not only deepen Taiwan's diplomatic isolation but also damage its economy by limiting Chinese tourist visits does seem to be having an impact, with Tsai's approval ratings down considerably since she took office May 2016. While political unification with China is deeply unpopular among Taiwan's 23 million people, support for trade and travel between the sides remains strong.
For now, China does seem to be exercising a degree of restraint, even as it seeks to convince countries such as Nigeria, Jordan and Ecuador that have only informal ties with Taiwan to downgrade those relations even further, said Dennis V. Hickey, distinguished professor and director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.
Beijing "could take more of Taipei's allies any time it wants to do so," Hickey said. As long as Tsai continues to defy Beijing, "Taiwan's global footprint will continue to shrink and the present administration will try to shift the blame to Beijing," he said.
Bodeen reported from Beijing.