TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan lost Nicaragua as a diplomatic ally after the Central American country said it would officially recognize only China, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory.

“There is only one China,” the Nicaraguan government said in a statement Thursday announcing the change. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory.”

“As of today, Nicaragua breaks its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and ceases to have any official contact or relationship,” it added.

The move increases Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation on the international stage, even as the self-governed island steps up official exchanges with countries such as Lithuania and Slovakia, which do not formally recognize Taiwan as a country. Now, Taiwan has 14 diplomatic allies remaining.

“What is most important to Taiwan is the number of countries with which it maintains diplomatic relations,” Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in an email. “In Central America, Nicaragua is now the third country that has switched recognition from Taiwan to China in the last four years. I wouldn’t be surprised if more are to come.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “sadness and regret” and said it would immediately recall its diplomatic staff.

“The more successful Taiwan’s democracy, and the greater the international support, then the greater the pressure from the authoritarian camp,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Friday in response. “Whether it’s diplomatic pressure or military intimidation, we will not change our determination to adhere to democracy and freedom, to go on the international stage and participate.”

China has been poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies over the past few years, cutting down the number of countries that recognize the democratic island as a sovereign nation. China is against Taiwan representing itself in global forums or in diplomacy. The Solomon Islands chose to recognize China in 2019, cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The Nicaraguan government signed an official communique to reestablish diplomatic ties with China in Tianjin on Friday, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. Under the agreement, Nicaragua promises not to have any official contact with Taiwan going forward.

“The resumption of diplomatic ties between China and Nicaragua is a policy decision, and definitely not a trading of bargaining chips,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing Friday. He denied that there were any “economic preconditions” to establishing ties.

Some experts say the switch is not necessarily a significant loss for Taiwan and may only have been a matter of time. Taiwan has been increasing its exchanges with Western countries and has emphasized the sharing of democratic values and working with “like-minded” nations.

“Everyone could see early on that this diplomatic relationship couldn’t be kept,” said Antonio C. Hsiang, a professor at La Academia Nacional de Estudios Y Estrategicos in Chile and an expert on Taiwan’s relations in Latin America.

Taiwan’s emphasis on democratic values stands in contrast to many of its diplomatic allies, such as Nicaragua or Honduras.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was reelected in November in what the White House called a “pantomime election.”

“The arbitrary imprisonment of nearly 40 opposition figures since May, including seven potential presidential candidates, and the blocking of political parties from participation rigged the outcome well before election day,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement in November in response to Ortega’s election.

The U.S. State Department also weighed in on the diplomatic switch on Friday, saying in a statement that “Ortega’s actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people, who continue to struggle for democracy and the ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Honduras, meanwhile, faces rampant corruption in its government. President Juan Orlando Hernandez faces allegations of ties to drug traffickers, according to U.S. federal prosecutors in New York. His brother was arrested in Miami in 2018 by U.S. authorities on suspicion of drug trafficking.

Hsiang, the professor, said he viewed the diplomatic break as a response to the growing Taiwan-Lithuania relationship, as well as Taiwan’s invitation to Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which is being held this week.

Chinese officials viewed it as a victory in a larger playing field. “We won yet another beautiful battle,” another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, wrote on his personal Weibo account, while sharing a video of Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada Colindres reading the statement saying that Taiwan is an “inalienable” part of China.

Zhao called the change part of “an irresistible trend.”

Nicaragua established diplomatic relations with Taiwan in the 1990s, when President Violeta Chamorro assumed power after defeating Ortega’s Sandinista regime at the polls. Ortega, who returned to power in 2007, had maintained close ties with Taipei until now. (By HUIZHONG WU Associated Press)

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