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U.S. leans on Honduras to rethink China switch, hopes for reprieve

FILE PHOTO: The flags of Taiwan and Honduras flutter in the wind outside the Taiwan Embassy in Tegucigalpa

By Sarah Kinosian and Ben Blanchard

(Reuters) - The United States is trying to discourage Honduras from following through on its plan to switch diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China, sources close to the matter say, hoping the lack of a formal agreement yet may leave the door open for a change of heart. The ongoing U.S. diplomatic pressure comes after Honduran President Xiomara Castro said on Tuesday her country would establish formal ties with China, following up on a pledge she made in her presidential campaign in 2021. Then, in 2022, her government appeared to walk back the policy. Officials and former officials from the U.S. and several Central American countries said Castro's provisional announcement contrasted with how countries in Latin America have tended to make public shifts in alliance from China to Taiwan. "We truly don't know whether it will be days or weeks or months," a U.S. government official told Reuters on background. "Is it a negotiating tactic? We don't know for sure, but we will continue to make our case." Since 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen was elected Taiwan's president, Panama, El Salvador and most recently, Nicaragua, have changed sides. All announced the switch as a fait accompli.

"I got an hour heads up, even after I had spoken to the president about it," said John Feeley, who was U.S. ambassador to Panama when it made the switch in 2017.

In another unusual turn, Honduras' ambassador to Taiwan, Harold Burgos, met with Taiwanese foreign ministry officials on Wednesday after Castro's announcement, something which Nicaragua's ambassador had declined to do during her country's switch in 2021, two diplomatic sources in Taipei said.

Reuters could not ascertain the outcome of the meeting, though Taiwan's foreign ministry said publicly it told Burgos his country should "carefully consider the matter so as not to fall into China's snare and make a flawed decision." China does not allow countries to hold diplomatic ties with both itself and Taiwan, regarding the island as its territory. Beijing regards Tsai as a separatist. For her part, she says Taiwan's people must determine their own future.

Both U.S. and Taiwanese officials say that although the announcement was not surprising given Castro's campaign stance, the tweet and its timing caught them off-guard. U.S. former and current officials are quick to argue that many countries which have made the shift have not reaped the economic benefits they were hoping for. "Countries should know that it is not money for nothing and chicks for free," Feeley said, referring to a 1980s Dire Straits hit, reiterating a point the U.S. government has continued to make that the "PRC over-promises and under-delivers." China disputes this, and the country's foreign ministry said on Thursday that former Taiwan allies like Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador have seen "rapid development" in bilateral relations, bringing them "tangible benefits." If Honduras' switch to Beijing is formalized, Taiwan will have just 13 diplomatic allies, including Belize and Guatemala.

(Reporting by Sarah Kinosian in Mexico City and Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Dave Graham and Lincoln Feast.)