China restores ties with Sao Tome; more may follow

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Sao Tome and Principe's Foreign Minister Urbino Botelho attend a signing ceremony for China and Sao Tome and Principe to establish official relations, in Beijing, China, on Dec 26, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

China has resumed ties with Sao Tome and Principe, six days after the small African state broke off relations with Taiwan, in what could be the start of more moves by Beijing to take away Taipei's diplomatic allies.

Both countries yesterday signed a communique in Beijing that re-established diplomatic relations which Sao Tome had broken off in 1997 in favour of Taiwan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who witnessed the signing with his Sao Tome counterpart Urbino Botelho, told reporters that China "highly appreciated" the move. "We are happy to see that Sao Tome and Principe has actively conformed to the tide of history, looking at the facts and long-term interests of both countries' peoples," he said.

China, which regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, had said it welcomed the African nation's return to the "correct path" of the "one China" principle after Sao Tome's announcement to sever ties with Taiwan last Tuesday.

Mr Botelho said yesterday: "We have to recognise that China plays an increasingly important role in the world, especially as a partner to promote development and its contributions protecting the interests of developing nations."

Mr Wang, for his part, said China was "willing to support" Sao Tome's quest for socio-economic development and efforts to improve livelihoods and well-being.

Taiwan last week said Sao Tome had cut ties because of Taipei's refusal to give an "astronomical amount" - put by an unnamed official at US$210 million (S$304 million) - in financial aid and that it would not engage in "dollar diplomacy" with China.

The speed with which China has re-established ties came as no surprise to analysts on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

"Beijing, through this act, wants to show the difference between (this case and that of Gambia)," said Professor Lin Chong-pin, former vice-chairman of Taiwan's top cross-strait policymaking body, the Mainland Affairs Council.

In the case of Gambia, which broke ties with Taiwan in 2013, China waited till March this year to re-establish relations, after the Kuomintang, the party of China-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou, lost the presidential and legislative elections to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). During Mr Ma's rule, there was a truce in the "diplomatic war" between China and Taiwan.

However, as Chinese cross-strait analyst Liu Xiangping of Nanjing University put it, now that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP have rejected the 1992 Consensus, that understanding the two sides have over Taiwan's foreign affairs is broken.

Under the 1992 Consensus, both sides belong to one China but with each having its own interpretation of what it means. Adhering to it is China's bottom line for peaceful and stable cross-strait ties.

Professor Liu warned that unless Taipei responded positively to Beijing's move to restore ties with Sao Tome by not just acknowledging the 1992 Consensus but also refraining from provoking the mainland, China would continue to take action against Taiwan.

This would include not rejecting overtures from Taiwan's remaining 21 diplomatic allies to establish or re-establish ties with Beijing as it had done while Mr Ma was in power, said Taiwanese international relations expert Yen Chen-shen.

Taiwan's options, short of acknowledging the 1992 Consensus, are few, said Professor Yen. Its best courseis to try to hang on to as many allies as it can without competing with China head-on. This would mean losing perhaps half a dozen of its allies, he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline China restores ties with Sao Tome; more may follow. Subscribe