News analysis

A warning to adhere to 'one China' principle

China welcomes move by African nation to break diplomatic ties with Taiwan

After months of speculation, it has finally happened.

One of Taiwan's just 22 diplomatic allies, Sao Tome and Principe, has broken ties with the island after Taiwan's new President Tsai Ing-wen refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus that has been the basis of cross-strait ties in the eight years under her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou. The consensus is a tacit agreement that there is only one China, with the mainland and Taiwan each having its own interpretation of what that means.

Sao Tome and Principe, a small and impoverished West African island state with a population of under 200,000, announced its decision to break ties with Taiwan on Tuesday in a statement.

The move was lauded by Beijing yesterday, with China's Foreign Ministry saying it welcomes "Sao Tome back onto the correct path of the 'one China' principle".

While China has not said if it would establish diplomatic relations with the African nation, analysts believe that Beijing had something to do with Sao Tome's move to break ties with Taiwan.

Since Ms Tsai failed in her inauguration speech on May 20 to express adherence to the 1992 Consensus, there has been speculation that among the things China might do to punish Taiwan would be the reduction of its international space, including taking away some of its already small number of diplomatic allies.

While China has not said if it would establish diplomatic relations with the African nation, analysts believe that Beijing had something to do with Sao Tome's move to break ties with Taiwan.

China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, set the 1992 Consensus as the basis for stable and peaceful ties between the two sides.

And, indeed, Taiwan this year was not invited to participate as an observer at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) assembly, after having done so under China-friendly Mr Ma.

Instead, Taiwanese civil aviation officials held a reception on the sidelines of the meeting for some of the assembly's attendees.

Sao Tome is the first diplomatic ally that Taiwan has lost since Ms Tsai became President. However, it has got to do with more than her failure to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus.

"Ms Tsai has said that cross-strait ties should be consistent, predictable, without mishap and sustainable. However, in the end, she caused not a few incidents," said Nanjing University's cross-strait expert Liu Xiangping.

He cited Taiwan's holding of its own reception for ICAO attendees and Ms Tsai's phone call to US President-elect Donald Trump, breaking a decades-old tradition of no direct contact between leaders of both sides in accordance with the US' "one China" policy.

"All this makes the mainland feel that Ms Tsai wants to take the Taiwan independence path in the international community," Mr Liu said.

However, he noted that China had chosen one of Taiwan's smaller diplomatic allies, indicating it did not want to make too big a move.

The ball is now in Taiwan's court and if Taipei does not adjust its policy, "cross-strait ties will enter into a confrontation mode" and more Chinese action can be expected. "To begin with, Taiwan needs to conduct its foreign affairs within the 'one China' framework," Mr Liu said.

All eyes will be on Ms Tsai, on whom she meets and what she says, as she passes through the US on her way to visit some Central American allies next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'A warning to adhere to 'one China' principle'. Print Edition | Subscribe