Gambia severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan (officially the Republic of China, or ROC) on November 14, 2013 and announced its intent to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Many analysts interpreted the announcement as a revival of the Taiwan-China competition for diplomatic allies. However, an unexpected wrinkle occurred: Beijing has not accepted Gambia’s offer. China’s response shows that Beijing currently places a higher priority on making progress in cross-Strait relations than on isolating Taiwan, although this attitude may not last.
The contest for diplomatic recognition dates back to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese civil war and the establishment of the PRC in 1949. The ROC government fled to Taiwan and, with U.S. backing, sought to maintain recognition as the sole legitimate government of all China. Most socialist countries recognized the PRC, but the United States and its allies supported the ROC government and helped it maintain China’s seat in the United Nations until October 1971. Both the PRC and ROC governments were committed to the notion of “one China” and refused to accept any dual-recognition formula that would identify the two sides as separate states.
From 1949 to 1994, Beijing and Taipei engaged in a fierce competition for diplomatic recognition, with each side vying for allies with offers of developmental aid in what has been referred to as “checkbook diplomacy.” As major countries began to shift recognition to the PRC following the U.S. opening to China in the early 1970s, Taiwan adopted the practice of pursuing “unofficial” economic and cultural ties with those countries that officially recognized the PRC. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union led more countries to shift recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. By 2008, only 23 countries in Africa, Central America and the South Pacific formally recognized Taiwan. Beginning in 1993, China also adopted a more pragmatic approach to economic relations with Taiwan’s allies, when Beijing set up a Trade Development Office in the Dominican Republic. Similar offices soon followed in Panama and Haiti. Despite this newfound pragmatism, both Beijing and Taipei continued to woo countries in hopes they would shift diplomatic recognition, drawing international criticism for supporting corrupt dictators and sustaining regimes with bad governance and human rights practices.
The diplomatic competition came to a standstill in 2008 with the election of KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou, who advocated a “Diplomatic Truce” between Beijing and Taipei as part of his rapprochement policy. While not formally accepting Ma’s proposal, Beijing has demonstrated goodwill by declining requests from Panama and El Salvador to switch recognition and by allowing Taiwan increased access to international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. Beijing’s current restraint is a potential source of future leverage: China could potentially cause a political crisis in Taiwan by flipping several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
The Gambia case presents a challenge to the unofficial diplomatic truce. Gambian president Yahya Jammeh made his decision independently without consulting either side. Taipei was notified through a letter sent to its embassy in Banjul. The next few days involved awkward diplomatic maneuvering: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Taipei removed the Gambian flag only to raise it again and Taipei sent senior diplomats to Gambia to try to restore relations. Taipei formally cut relations with Gambia four days after Jammeh’s declaration, on November 18. Taiwan’s MOFA subsequently revealed that Jammeh had asked Taiwan for additional financial assistance in January 2013, suggesting he was trying to play by the old checkbook diplomacy rules.
However, Beijing has yet to accept Gambia’s offer. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed it “had no contact with the Gambian side” and had only “received word from foreign media sources.” Beijing has remained silent, aside from a Global Times article that if Gambia “hopes to use Taiwan’s ‘diplomatic relations’ to see compensation from the Mainland, it is unlikely to be successful.” Likewise, a Chinese diplomat has noted that Taiwan, as a core interest, trumps any domestic or diplomatic agendas in establishing relations with Banjul.
If China’s forbearance continues, the diplomatic truce may be sustainable. In accommodating Taiwan’s desire for international space, Beijing is signaling that there are substantial benefits for a Taiwan administration that prioritizes improving cross-Strait relations. Such a move gives Beijing leverage regardless of which party secures the presidency in 2016. If the ruling KMT party is again victorious, Beijing can use continuation of the diplomatic truce as a bargaining chip for enhanced political talks. If the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins, China can threaten to end the diplomatic truce if the DPP does not agree to a mutually acceptable formula on cross-Strait relations. The DPP has largely opposed the diplomatic truce for that very reason, arguing that it makes Taiwan more dependent on China and deprives Taipei of its ability to negotiate with Beijing on equal footing.
Gambia now stands as the only significant example of a country without diplomatic ties to either Taiwan or China. If the diplomatic truce holds, will Gambia try to restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan? If so, will Taiwan accept its offer? Renewal of ties with such a fickle and mercenary partner could damage Taiwan’s image, highlighting the persistence of checkbook diplomacy and Taipei’s continued support of corrupt authoritarian regimes with a slew of human rights violations. Taiwan’s decision calculus will incorporate numerous factors, weighing the benefits of restoring ties (such as having one more country vote on Taiwan’s behalf in international fora) against a damaged reputation and perceptions that Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships are merely transactional. But China still holds the trump cards. If senior Chinese leaders decide to shift their approach, Beijing could abruptly terminate the diplomatic truce and establish relations with many of Taiwan’s current allies.
In the meantime, China’s decision to maintain only unofficial relations with Gambia has some unexpected costs. Beijing has invested in the planned construction of a Trans-West African highway that traverses Banjul and recently agreed to develop a hydropower dam on the Gambia River. China must work on these projects indirectly through organizations such as the Economic Community of Western Africa States and the Gambia River Basic Development Organization. China’s lack of diplomatic relations with Gambia also allows Chinese citizens to exploit a loophole in the Hong Kong Capital Investment Entrant Scheme, which allows foreign residents in most countries other than China to invest in Hong Kong and gain residency permits. Over 9,000 Chinese citizens have gained Hong Kong residency status through Gambia, where permanent residency can be purchased for roughly $12,000 and without an actual visit to the country. Though the Taiwan factor will remain the most important element in Beijing’s policy calculus, the Gambia case illustrates that the cross-strait diplomatic truce can create surprising complications for a global power like China. It also shows that despite the diplomatic truce, African and other global actors still have some opportunities to use China-Taiwan competition for their own benefit.
Jessica Drun is a research intern at National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs and a graduate student at Georgetown University. The views expressed are her own and may not reflect those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government