The Gambia’s decision to sever ties with Taiwan was a big blow for President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) problem-plagued administration, posing a great challenge to his “flexible diplomacy” policy.
Ma has remained silent since Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced the news. His administration, on the other hand, quickly said that China was not behind the move and stressed the importance of mutual trust between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The response, which aimed to eliminate concerns about China’s role in Jammeh’s decision and to consolidate cross-strait relations amid the diplomatic crisis, is more proof of the administration’s dependence on China and its failure to recognize that it is the trust of Taiwanese that it should seek to regain.
Improving the cross-strait relationship and seeking close cooperation with China have been Ma’s top priorities since his election in 2008. Over the past five years, his administration has lost the public’s trust because of its poor handling of domestic issues like the electricity price hike, plans to forge ahead with the construction of the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市), and a string of food safety scandals that continue to cause concern.
While the Ministry of Health and Welfare struggled to hold cooking oil manufacturers responsible for allegedly adulterating edible oils while running tests of problematic additives in all edible oils, Ma was busy cementing his status as the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman at Sunday’s party congress last week and pressing the KMT caucus to speed up legislative review of the cross-strait service trade agreement so that it can be implemented as soon as possible.
Facing the diplomatic setback with the Gambia, which became the first ally to terminate diplomatic ties with Taiwan under the Ma administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement to the Gambia that the Republic of China (ROC) government was shocked and regretted the sudden severing of bilateral ties, and that it is yet to fully understand the reasons behind Jammeh’s decision.
The statement seems to be a typical response for the Ma administration whenever a crisis emerges. Ma has demonstrated his incompetence in handling domestic issues and now the Gambia crisis has further damaged his flexible diplomacy approach, which he described as a policy to ensure that the nation does not lose any more diplomatic allies because it signifies a “truce” with China in the international arena.
As a national leader with an embarrassing 9 percent approval rating, Ma is in dire straits, as the Gambia crisis shows that his administration is not only unable to fix domestic problems, but foreign issues as well.
At a time when the nation faces challenges at home and abroad, Ma and his administration need to stop relying on China for cure-alls and start looking within for solutions.
Although the Gambia has not (yet) established ties with China, and Beijing also insisted that it had not known about the nation’s decision, the government should not overlook China’s vast investment in Africa and the possibility that the Gambia might receive financial aid from China in the future.
In comparison with China’s growing economic and political strength, Taiwan has been stuck with a faltering economy, and social and political divides. If the Ma administration does not focus its efforts to revive the economy and address domestic problems to restore public trust and boost the nation’s strength, flexible diplomacy will only lead to a dead end for Taiwan.