Gambia re-established diplomatic ties with China in mid-March. In real terms, that is no big deal: Gambia carries little weight in the world. Symbolically, however, it matters. The shift is a shot across the bow of the incoming administration in Taiwan, and a warning that Beijing’s tolerance for departures from the current Taipei government’s foreign and cross-strait policies is low. Asia and the rest of the world have been beneficiaries of a truce between the two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait. We must prepare for a downturn and a return to skirmishing.
Gambia is the smallest country in continental Africa — with a population of about 2 million and GDP of less than $1 billion. Upon gaining independence in 1965, it commenced diplomatic relations with Taiwan, then switched to Beijing when Beijing assumed Taipei’s seat at the United Nations in 1971. It returned to the Taiwan camp in 1995 but severed ties with Taipei in 2013, reportedly because Taiwan refused to increase foreign assistance to the country.
China did not seize the opportunity to add another country to its diplomatic roster, however. This forbearance was part of the diplomatic truce that was reached between Beijing and Taipei, part of a larger effort to reduce tension between the two governments. The freezing of the diplomatic status quo reflected Beijing’s calculation that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeau was a leader it could do business with and that it should not act in ways that undermined his standing in the world and among the Taiwanese. In short, they bet that if Ma could be seen as preserving Taiwan’s international status, he would win domestic support for his cross-strait policy of closer ties with the mainland and eventual reconciliation.
Rapprochement was a considerable departure from the policies of his predecessor, President Chen Shui-bian, head of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Cross-strait ties during his tenure were marked by tensions and threats and periodic fears of a genuine confrontation across the strait, one that could embroil the United States, Taiwan’s military supporter, and even Japan.
The victory of Tsai Ing-wen in January’s presidential ballot has sparked fears in China that the new administration will not be as committed to reconciliation as Ma. Tsai is from the DPP and she and her party have expressed concern about Taiwan’s economic dependence on China. She has also refused to explicitly back the “one China” principle that Beijing insists is the precondition for good relations across the strait.
Tsai counters that she seeks peace and stability in cross-strait relations and has no desire to pick a fight with China. She seeks more international space for Taiwan but will not be as provocative as Chen. Yet Beijing has not been mollified.
The move to re-establish diplomatic relations with Gambia, announced March 17 after three years of limbo, is a warning to Tsai and the DPP that Beijing is prepared to squeeze Taiwan to force it back in line. After Gambia’s defection, just 22 countries, most of them relatively poor nations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific, maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan and there are fears that five or six of them are ready to join Gambia and switch recognition.
In addition to raising the heat in cross-strait ties and forcing other countries into increasingly zero-sum calculations, resumption of the “diplomatic war” can damage the countries that are being fought over. Diplomatic competition was actually an economic competition, with both governments writing checks to win support. The readiness of the two governments to use development aid to win backers contributed to corruption and mismanagement; the tidal wave of money also undermines efforts by other governments to promote democratic principles and transparency in government. In one episode during the Chen era, $30 million of Taiwan’s money was reportedly lost in an attempt to buy support from a Pacific Island nation. Worse, governments that can be bought do not stay bought: Since 1962, the Central African Republic and Senegal have switched recognition five times each.
Worse still, this is a fight that Taiwan cannot win given the size of the Chinese economy and the readiness of Beijing to use every tool at its disposal to punish Tsai, including the way it treats Taiwanese companies in China.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “regret” at Gambia’s decision. Tsai and her allies must be more troubled still. The decision to break the diplomatic truce is a signal to the new government of the consequences of a failure to address Beijing’s concerns. China is ready to play hardball. It is not even going to wait and see how Tsai governs. Instead it is already beginning to squeeze Tsai and Taiwan to stick to Ma’s policies. She will get no honeymoon nor even the benefit of the doubt from Beijing. Japan, along with other countries in the region, need to begin planning now for how they will address the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
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