Paraguay leader hails Taiwan as ‘beacon of democracy’

TAIPEI: Paraguay’s outgoing leader hailed Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy” Thursday, ahead of a presidential vote that could see his country cutting ties with the island. “In the face of continued threats and tense situation, the Taiwan people have not given up their resolve for peace, and continued to play the role of a beacon of democracy in the region,” President Mario Abdo Benitez said on a visit to the island.

The South American nation is one of only 14 countries that officially recognise Taipei over Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to seize it. But Taiwan’s decades-old diplomatic ties with Paraguay are at risk with opposition candidate Efrain Alegre reportedly saying he would switch recognition to Beijing if elected in April’s presidential polls.

Latin America has been a key diplomatic battleground for China and Taiwan since the two split in 1949 after a civil war. China has spent decades successfully convincing Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch recognition, gaining eight in recent years — most recently Nicaragua.

Taiwan accused Beijing of trying to lure Paraguay away in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 when the country was struggling with soaring infections. At that time Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu said Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” had generated a lot of pressure on Abdo Benitez’s government, while the political opposition was “very willing to link up with China”.

At a separate event on Thursday, Abdo Benitez reiterated his “firmest support” for Taiwan and pledged to be its “most staunch friend”, whether as a president or former head-of-state. Meanwhile, Taiwan said it found the remains of a suspected Chinese meteorological balloon on Thursday and would increase patrols at military facilities as Beijing intensifies threats toward the self-ruled island.

The incident comes after US President Joe Biden ordered the shooting down of a Chinese balloon after it crossed US territory, including over areas with sensitive military sites. US officials said it was a surveillance balloon and part of a fleet of such craft allegedly floating around the globe. Beijing insists it was a meteorological craft that had blown off course and has accused Washington of sending similar devices into its airspace, charges the US has denied.

Taiwan’s army said “unidentified objects” were spotted falling from the sky on Thursday over the Matsu islands, some 280 kilometres from capital Taipei. There they found the remains of a balloon that was one meter in diameter and a device inscribed with simplified Chinese characters commonly used in China that read “Taiyuan Radio No. 1 Factory Co., Ltd.” and “meteorology instrument,” the army said in a statement.

“Our initial analysis is that the remains belong to a meteorological detection device which have been stored by relevant units to be further analysed,” the army said. “All units are required to enhance camp patrols and continue to… monitor relevant situation.” Beijing has ramped up military, diplomatic and economic pressure in recent years on Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory and has vowed to seize one day, by force if necessary.

Taiwan’s defence ministry said at a press conference on Tuesday that Chinese meteorological balloons had previously been spotted without providing details on the number and frequency. The ministry said it would shoot down devices that pose a “high level of threat” but it has not yet encountered such a craft. – AFP


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