PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panama switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China on Monday after more than a century of having only commercial relations with the Asian giant, the latest twist in Beijing and Taipei's ongoing competition for recognition by the world's nations.
Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced the change, which entails breaking off formal relations with Taiwan, saying in a televised address that it represents the "correct path for our country."
A joint statement released in the evening said Panama and China were recognizing each other and establishing ambassador-level relations as of that same day.
"The Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that only one China exists in the world, the Government of the People's Republic of China is the only legitimate Government that represents all China and Taiwan forms an inalienable part of Chinese territory," the statement read.
"The Government of the Republic of Panama this very day breaks its 'diplomatic relations' with Taiwan, and commits to leaving behind all official relations or contact with Taiwan," it continued.
China considers the self-governing island of Taiwan a part of its territory, and most of the world does not formally recognize Taiwan as a condition of maintaining relations with China.
Beijing and Taipei have long competed with each other to win diplomatic recognition, at times enticing small or poor countries to switch with the promise of millions of dollars for public works projects. Taiwan now has official ties with 20 countries and governments, 12 of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Varela had suggested the possibility of switching diplomatic recognition during his presidential campaign in 2014, for historic, economic and strategic reasons.
"Both nations are betting on a more interconnected world," Varela said in a possible allusion to Chinese economic involvement in the canal. He mentioned that it was a massive Chinese vessel that was the first to pass through the canal's expanded locks when they opened in June 2016.
China is the second-biggest client of the Panama Canal and the leading provider of merchandise to a free-commerce zone in the Panamanian city of Colon, on the country's Caribbean coast.
Officials could not immediately be reached for comment at the Taiwanese Embassy in Panama City, which was closed Monday night.