Taiwan President-elect Tsai says island 'needs to protect its space' after China renews ties with former ally Gambia

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan needs to protect its international space as its diplomatic position is precarious, President-elect Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday (March 18) after China resumed ties with former Taiwan ally Gambia and anger mounted in the self-ruled island at the move.

The small West African state was one of only a few African countries, along with Burkina Faso, Swaziland and Sao Tome and Principe, to recognise self-ruled Taiwan, which China regards as a wayward province to be recovered by force if necessary.

China and Taiwan have for years tried to poach each other's allies, often dangling generous aid packages in front of leaders of developing nations.

But they began an unofficial diplomatic truce after signing a series of landmark trade and economic agreements in 2008 after the election of the China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, as Beijing tried to convince Taiwan of its friendly intentions after decades of hostility and suspicion.

That truce is now over, following January's landslide election of Ms Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). China has repeatedly warned her against any moves towards independence.

In comments released via a spokesman, Ms Tsai said China and Taiwan did not need to do anything to harm each other's feelings.

"(I) hope the establishment of ties with Gambia is not a targeted move," Ms Tsai said. "At present Taiwan's diplomatic situation is not optimistic, and needs everyone to unite together to face up to it, to consistently protect our international space."

Senior Taiwanese lawmakers lined up to criticise China, including from the China-friendly Nationalists.

"It has seriously hurt the feelings of the Taiwan people," said Nationalist Party lawmaker Chiang Chi-chen, a member of Parliament's defence and foreign affairs committee.

DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said Ms Tsai had pledged to maintain the status quo with China and that she would not take provocative actions. "But very regretful, before her inauguration, China with its unilateral action has changed the status quo across the Taiwan Strait," Mr Lo said.

Ms Tsai assumes office in May.

While Gambia severed relations with Taiwan in November 2013, causing anger in Taipei, China had held off establishing formal ties with it until now.

Influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said it did not believe the decision represented a collapse of the diplomatic truce, but accused Taiwan of "making trouble".

"DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen should act more positively to address the growing uncertainties," it said in an editorial.

Gambia had recognised China, officially known as the People's Republic of China, from 1974 to 1995, before switching to Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China.

Other countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan include the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti and Nicaragua.