Is China and Taiwan’s Diplomatic Truce Over?

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Is China and Taiwan’s Diplomatic Truce Over?

Last week The Gambia decided to cut ties with Taiwan. The implications could be significant.

An air of uncertainty descended upon Taipei on November 14 when he tricolor Gambian flag was pulled down at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hours after rumors had emerged that Banjul had unilaterally severed ties with Taiwan. By day’s end, it was confirmed that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh had made the move to end nearly eighteen years of diplomatic relations. Taiwan reciprocated on November 18, leaving it with only three allies on the African continent, and 22 worldwide.

The setback — this was Taipei’s first loss of a diplomatic ally since Malawi cut ties in January 2008 and established relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — immediately gave rise to speculation in Taipei as to whether the so-called “diplomatic truce” established between presidents Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and Hu Jintao in China had come to an end. Under the informal truce, Taipei and Beijing had agreed to temporarily cease trying to steal each other’s diplomatic allies, often through “checkbook diplomacy,” as the two sides focused on improving bilateral ties.

The truce has held for five years, and Beijing has kept its part of the bargain, refusing advances by countries such as El Salvador, and possibly Honduras, that have expressed the desire to abandon Taiwan, the world’s 20th-largest economy, and establish ties with the increasingly attractive PRC, by some metrics the world’s second-largest.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether Beijing may have influenced Banjul’s decision by offering recognition or development assistance. Based on public releases by all the parties involved so far, the answer seems to be no. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a press briefing on November 15 that Beijing had learned the news from foreign media, while Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, David Lin, ruled out on November 18 a Beijing role in the move, adding that there were no signs of contact between Chinese and Gambian officials.

According to Taipei, which sent a delegation of diplomats to the Gambian capital over the weekend to assess the situation, the decision was likely to have been Jammeh’s alone, and occurred despite “frequent high-level visits between the two countries and successful bilateral cooperation programs.” Jammeh took power after a bloodless coup in 1994 and has often been accused of running the West African country like a despot. In a statement, Jammeh’s office said that the decision to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan was taken “in our strategic national interests.” A subsequent letter addressed to President Ma said that Jammeh felt that the Republic of China — Taiwan’s official designation — “no longer attached great importance to relations with his country.”

What is also unclear is whether Jammeh’s decision was tied to Taipei’s refusal to meet “unacceptable” requests for aid by Banjul, which reportedly included a call for US$10 million in financial assistance, and whether Jammeh calculated that he could play Taipei against Beijing.

Speculation aside, it is clear that Jammeh has concluded that Gambia’s interests would be better served by having diplomatic ties with the PRC. In a November 15 entry on his Facebook page, the leader wrote: “I am now taking an important step towards advancing Vision 2020 for all citizens of The Gambia. The Gambia will no longer recognize the island of Taiwan diplomatically. We are proud that we have been a very strong and reliable partner of Taiwan for the past 18 years and look forward to friendly future dealings.”

He concludes: “… but [I] declare that the People’s Republic of China will be only [sic] the only China to be recognized diplomatically by The Gambia going forward.”

Many questions remain, but we can already explore some of the possible dynamics involved.

One overlooked variable is the fact that the decision to terminate ties with Taipei occurred about one month after The Gambia pulled out of the British Commonwealth, stating that it would never again be part of “any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism.” There is a chance that the two unexpected moves were related, as Banjul could now be seeking diplomatic alternatives to the Commonwealth. China, the standard bearer of a new and perhaps “anti-Western” order, is certainly an appealing candidate.

Given his strongman ruling style, it is not impossible that Jammeh would have decided to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan without securing guarantees from Beijing beforehand. If that is the case, Beijing will now find itself in a difficult position, as it will be forced to weigh the political gains of isolating Taiwan internationally against the possible repercussions that doing so would have on rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing. Recognizing The Gambia would risk further weakening the already unpopular Ma by discrediting the “flexible diplomacy” and China policy that have been the mainstay of his presidency since 2008, and which arguably have contributed to stability in the Taiwan Strait. At this point it is unclear whether Beijing would risk derailing the cross-strait détente by establishing diplomatic relations with Banjul. (Another option for Beijing would be to leave Banjul out in the cold by not granting it official diplomatic recognition, though economic ties could still develop.)

Another possibility, albeit a less likely one at this point, is that President Xi Jinping, who early on in his first term has sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor, may be losing patience with Hu’s “go-slow” approach to Taiwan and unification, a strategy which essentially seeks to prevent the island’s formal independence while using economics to gradually drag the island within its sphere of influence. The strong domestic headwinds Ma has encountered over a controversial cross-strait services trade agreement sought by Beijing has added to Taipei’s reluctance to enter into any kind of negotiations with the PRC on overtly political subjects such as a peace accord and a military confidence-building mechanism — both non-starters with the Taiwanese public, From this Xi may have concluded that the “goodwill” Beijing has extended to Taiwan since 2008 is not yielding the expected political dividends. (The signing of a free-trade pact between Taiwan and Singapore in early November could have exacerbated such views among Chinese officials who have grown impatient with Taipei.) 

Should that be the case, Xi and his policy advisers may have decided to punish Taiwan for failing to do what was expected of it. Ending the “diplomatic truce” and resuming efforts to isolate Taiwan could be part of accrued efforts to compel the Ma administration to either put the dialogue “back on track,” or to accelerate the pace and deepen the nature of the engagement on terms that better reflect Beijing’s timetable.