El Salvador’s New President Considers Breaking Relations with China

Nayib Bukele: president-elect disrupting Salvadoran politics
AFP/Oscar Rivera

The new president of El Salvador, Niyab Bukele, is reportedly reconsidering his country’s relationship with China and intends to follow up on his campaign criticism of the previous administration’s deals with Beijing.

Word of a change in relations between San Salvador and Beijing came from Bukele insider Federico Anliker on Friday. Anliker, who serves as secretary general of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas organization, told Salvadoran media the outgoing administration of Salvador Sánchez Ceren never adequately explained why it shunned Taiwan and moved into China’s orbit in August 2018.

Anliker said the incoming administration “will not necessarily break relations” with China, but wishes to “study them and put them in the balance,” considering “what is best for the nation, not what is best for a political party” as Ceren did.

This slam at Sánchez’s government insinuates he was simply bought off by Beijing, which offered El Salvador a huge amount of money to switch allegiance away from Taiwan, including $150 million for social spending and 3,000 tons of rice for drought relief.

Bukele ran on an anti-corruption platform and explicitly promised to reconsider what he saw as a corrupt bargain Sánchez made with Beijing.

“We have to review that deal this outgoing government made at the last minute in exchange for some tons of rice. We are going to review it, but we will not necessarily break relations with China,” he said during his campaign.

Chinese officials are not hitting the panic button just yet, but the South China Morning Post on Friday ran some unfortunate quotes from Chinese academics who said Beijing does indeed view El Salvador as a bauble purchased at discount prices:

Xu Shicheng, a research fellow with the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said Bukele’s diplomatic strategy stood in contrast to that of his predecessor.

“But there is no need to worry, since they could see for themselves that China is the ally with money and the agricultural technology that El Salvador needs as a developing country,” Xu said.

[…] Zhang Jiazhe, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing should watch when Bukele assumed power in June.

“Small Central American countries like El Salvador, they do not have much political power. The most important thing for them is money and aid,” Zhang said. “It is almost like going to the market, seeing who gives them the best deal.”

Those words probably will not be music in Bukele’s ears. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry is reportedly monitoring the situation in El Salvador but did not immediately comment on Anliker’s remarks.

The Trump administration is optimistic about Bukele and thinks Taiwan might get a new deal from El Salvador. A senior official in Washington earlier this week called Bukele’s election “extraordinarily positive” and wondered, “Who knows, we may even see the first re-adjustment of diplomatic relations, but this time away from China towards Taiwan?”

“There’s a lot of questions in El Salvador in regards to the corrupt practices of the current [president] and a lot of their dealings with the Chinese that were very shady and non-trasparent, so I think that, in that regards, a lot of the writing is on the wall,” the unnamed official told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.

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