Taiwan leader visits allies to safeguard ties after Gambia blow

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's president on Thursday began a three-country tour as part of a bid to safeguard ties with Taipei's dwindling diplomatic base after the recent loss of long-time ally Gambia.

Mr Ma Ying-jeou, who is scheduled to return on Thursday next week, will travel to Sao Tome and Principe, and Burkina Faso - two of the only three African countries that now officially recognise Taipei after Gambia cut off ties in November.

During the eight-day trip he will also travel to Honduras to attend the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernandez as president, scheduled for January 27, according to the presidential office.

This will mark Mr Ma's first overseas state visit since Gambia's surprise move to break off ties with Taiwan after 18 years.

The decision left the island - which split from China in 1949 after a bitter civil war - with a waning number of just 22 allies, mostly developing nations in Latin America and the Pacific.

Lingering hostilities remain between Taiwan and China, although tensions have eased markedly since Mr Ma assumed power in 2008. He was re-elected in January 2012.

Beijing still claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary.

Since taking office five years ago on a Beijing-friendly platform, Mr Ma has promoted a diplomatic truce with China, aimed at preventing the formerly bitter rivals from luring away each other's allies with hefty financial aid packages.

Critics say the diplomatic setback showed that Mr Ma's overture towards Beijing was tantamount to surrender and must be halted immediately.

China, which has growing investments and influence in Africa, swiftly denied it had put pressure on Gambia, but said support for "the peaceful reunification of China is an irreversible trend".