News analysis

China's forceful 'reminder' to Taiwan

Forging of diplomatic ties with Gambia sends strong signal to Taiwan's new leader to play ball with Beijing

Most Taiwanese would not know much about Gambia. The tiny West African country has a population of 1.8 million and grows peanuts as its main crop, while its President Yahya Jammeh claims to have found a herbal cure for HIV-Aids.

But on Thursday, it loomed large on Taiwan's radar as China announced that it has established diplomatic ties with Gambia.

As a former diplomatic ally of Taiwan, Gambia thus represents Beijing's first warning shot across the bow for incoming Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen.

"It's a reminder to Taiwan's new leader of the need to maintain a stable and constructive relationship with the mainland," Professor Chu Jintao, an expert on Taiwan affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, told The Straits Times. And no, it is not a threat. "Just a reminder," he reiterates.

If so, it is a pretty forceful one.

Thursday's announcement came 2½ years after Gambia severed ties with Taiwan. But China had desisted from establishing relations, despite Gambia's overtures, as part of a diplomatic truce in place under China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou. Taiwan currently has 22 diplomatic allies, mainly small states in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Now, China is signalling that the temporary detente could be over - if Ms Tsai does not play ball.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his Gambian counterpart, Ms Neneh Macdouall-Gaye, in Beijing on Thursday. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his Gambian counterpart, Ms Neneh Macdouall-Gaye (left), in Beijing on Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS

At her inauguration on May 20, Ms Tsai will expound on her cross-strait policy, including whether she recognises the One China principle inherent in the 1992 Consensus. The chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has been vague on whether she accepts it.

Said Prof Chu: "Taiwan's 22 allies have all been asking Beijing to revive diplomatic ties. But it's up to Ms Tsai to consider her stance on cross-strait relations."

Ms Tsai yesterday said that Taiwan's diplomatic situation is "not optimistic" and issued a rallying call for all parties in Taiwan to "protect" its diplomatic position.

So, will Beijing's gambit work?

No, in that it was an expected move which Ms Tsai would have already anticipated.

No one in the DPP could have been genuinely surprised by the latest development, said global studies expert Dennis Hickey of Missouri State University. The end of the diplomatic truce was a warning long sounded by analysts and former senior DPP officials.

Ms Tsai was herself asked about such a possibility during the presidential campaign, to which she responded that Taiwan will have to groom "combat-ready" diplomats. This means she would have already taken it into account in preparing her cross-strait policy.

Thus, the battle is likely to be not so much in the diplomatic arena but in public opinion - convincing Taiwanese people who is at fault for the deteriorating situation.

Already, the blame game has started. China's Global Times said it was Taiwan who "created trouble" and that Ms Tsai needs to "act more positively to address the growing uncertainties".

For now, though, Ms Tsai has the upper hand. Beijing's hard-ball tactics will turn off Taiwanese, who will rally behind their president.

Said Chinese foreign policy specialist Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison: "The Taiwanese are proud of what they have achieved. They of course will be further alienated from China... that tries to humiliate and wound Taiwan."

China is cognisant of the potential backlash, said Prof Chu. It will "calibrate" its strategy.

Some have argued that shedding diplomatic allies is no skin off Taiwan's nose anyway. Described as "tinpot nations and despot leaders", these were won over by Taiwan's chequebook diplomacy.

Said Prof Friedman: "The micro-countries in the Pacific and elsewhere that recognise Taiwan are not Taiwan's allies. Thinking of them as Taiwan's allies is a Taiwanese delusion."

More crucial are Taiwan's unofficial relationships with major powers such as the United States and Japan, which have informal trade and other offices in Taipei.

Still, the island's 22 allies are symbolic as a bulwark against its slide into formal diplomatic oblivion. They also help defend its interests in international forums including the United Nations General Assembly.

Beyond that, some worry that the collapse of the diplomatic truce is just the beginning.

Talk has swirled that Beijing is slashing from 47 to four the number of Chinese cities allowed to send tourists to Taiwan.

Said Prof Hickey: "It will probably represent only one part in a collapse of the rapprochement that has characterised cross-strait relations since 2008.

"All the progress achieved during the past eight years - including Taiwan gaining a voice in the World Health Organisation and other international organisations - could be in jeopardy.

"This development could undermine peace and stability in the western Pacific."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline China's forceful 'reminder' to Taiwan. Subscribe