China-Taiwan diplomatic competition recently made a surprise return to the headlines when one of Africa’s longest running and least democratic rulers – Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh – withdrew official diplomatic recognition from Taiwan. Jammeh had been in the international media spotlight only a month before when he took Gambia out of the Commonwealth.
Many suspected that China had withdrawn the tacit “diplomatic truce” it had extended to Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou as a carrot for further progress towards unification. But China did not establish relations with Gambia, and it seems that China was not behind the move. Rather, it appears that Jammeh broke off relations with Taiwan after it would not provide more money. He either did this in a fit of pique or because he misunderstood the nature of the diplomatic truce and thought China would play along.
Taiwan now has one less so-called “diplomatic ally,” but the truce with China endures. However, it would be a mistake to think that is the end of the story. The Gambia episode actually speaks volumes about what is going on just beneath the tranquil surface of the China-Taiwan diplomatic truce.
To start with, Gambia illustrates that Ma is serious about not raising aid expenditure and in making Taiwan’s diplomatic allies better account for the funding they receive. Prior to the truce, the fact that China was waiting ready in the wings gave Taiwan’s diplomatic allies considerable leverage in demanding more aid with less accountability. The Ma administration trumped that bargaining power by making a deal with Beijing. But this deal has limits: it prevents allies from recognizing China but it can’t force them to recognize Taiwan. So while Taiwan’s allies now have much less leverage, they don’t necessarily need to accept whatever Taiwan’s decides to offer. Panama kept Taiwan’s ambassador waiting for about six months to demonstrate that point. Jammeh’s decision to cut ties with Taiwan can be seen as taking that bargaining logic to the extreme.
Still, more pluralistically governed countries – those where the national interest is not so intertwined with one man’s ego – would find it difficult to adopt Gambia’s approach. For example, Taiwan’s insistence that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Danny Phillip account for $1.5 million in development funding ended in his replacement as prime minister, not a break with Taiwan. Yet, the episode with Gambia suggests that there may be more diplomatic allies dissatisfied with the deal Taiwan has imposed on them. There is no indication that China is providing less funding or demanding more accountability from the recipients of its aid. So, it is possible that many of Taiwan’s allies will rapidly defect if or when China withdraws the truce.
The incident with Gambia also tells us that China really wants the Ma administration to succeed. The break with Gambia occurred only days after the announcement of Taiwan’s FTA with Singapore. Initially, it appeared very plausible that the Chinese leadership were fed up with President Ma’s efforts to expand ties with the rest of the world rather than move more quickly on cross-strait political and economic agreements. Whether or not Beijing is dissatisfied with Ma’s commitment to unification, it is presumably very aware that the pro-Taiwan independence Democratic Progress Party (DPP) would be the big winner if it were to take the truce away from Ma now. It would give the DPP significant new evidence to take to Taiwan’s voters that Ma’s rapprochement with the mainland has not brought the benefits he promised. It would also mean that a future DPP president could not be blamed for sabotaging the agreement. So after Gambia, it now seems safe to say that Ma would have to do something truly extraordinary to spur Beijing into resuming diplomatic competition.
The final major take away is how anachronistic the truce has become. Before coming to power, Ma promised to halt the declining count of diplomatic allies, reduce foreign affairs scandals and improve relations with countries such as Australia that saw Taiwan as undermining good governance in developing countries. That sounded very appealing to a weary Taiwan public in the midst of President Chen Shui-bian’s troubled second term. Now, more than five years since President Ma first took office, the controversies surrounding his administration’s relations with China, and the domestic governance failings and intrigues, have completely overshadowed the truce’s original rationale. With Ma’s approval ratings already at rock bottom, it is hard to see how it would make much difference if China were to cancel the truce.
With China committed to the truce with the KMT, and Ma locked in by default, the future of the truce will be decided at the next Taiwan presidential election. A future KMT president will presumably maintain it. But the truce has become less valuable, and that administration may well feel less gratitude to Beijing for it than the current one. It is hard to believe that a future DPP president will consider the truce important enough to justify concessions toward China’s unification policy. So China will likely withdraw it once it becomes clear which way the DPP wants to go.
Dr. Joel Atkinson is a Lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He researches East Asian foreign aid policies and China-Taiwan relations. He is the author of Australia and Taiwan: Bilateral Relations, China, the United States, and the South Pacific (Brill, 2012). His research has also been published in The Pacific Review, Pacific Affairs, the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and the Australian Journal of Politics and History.