Following Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s announcement on Nov. 14 that his country was unilaterally terminating its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government made strenuous efforts to mend ties. If these efforts had succeeded, it would have allowed Ma to maintain an achievement of losing no diplomatic partners since he became president in 2008. The government was also at pains to say that the Gambia’s decision to cut off ties with Taiwan had nothing to do with China. The point of this was to prove that Ma’s policy of “flexible diplomacy” had not failed. China’s foreign ministry also played innocent, saying that it had known nothing about the Gambia’s impending break-off with Taiwan and had no hand in it. Nonetheless, the Ma government’s handling of this incident highlights the difficulty of maintaining its policy of “flexible diplomacy,” and the debacle has once more damaged the nation’s dignity.
The reality we must face is that Jammeh has openly terminated diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It is a done deed, unless it turns out that the Gambian president does not have the power to do such a thing. The special emissaries Taiwan sent to the Gambia immediately following Jammeh’s announcement probably tried hard to reason with him, as well as appealing to his better nature. They may have suggested that China might not want to establish ties with the Gambia or give it any more aid than Taiwan was giving. Perhaps, in the hope of getting him to change his mind, they asked Jammeh to think about the many years of friendship between the Gambia and Taiwan and the aid that Taiwan would continue to provide in the future. All the things Taiwan’s emissaries may have suggested could well come to pass, but this kind of pleading puts Taiwan’s national dignity at stake. The most it could have achieved was a dubious achievement for Ma’s “flexible diplomacy.” As it turned out, Jammeh was not willing to change his mind, and the result has been a big loss of face for Taiwan.
The root cause behind the Gambia’s termination of diplomatic relations with Taiwan is the “one China” principle advocated by China. Even if China did not ask the Gambia to cut off ties with Taiwan, it is still China’s “one China” principle that forces the Gambia and other diplomatic partners of Taiwan to choose between one side of the Taiwan Strait or the other. Only if they break off ties with Taiwan can they establish diplomatic relations with China. It also means that the Gambia can, if it wishes, use the “one China” principle to coerce Taiwan to give it more aid. China’s claim that it had no hand in the Gambia’s severance of ties with Taiwan is just feigned innocence intended to win Taiwanese sympathy.
Of course Taiwan still has to face up to international realities and adjust its strategy and tactics accordingly. People in Taiwan do not like using checkbook diplomacy to compete with China for diplomatic recognition. They do not want Taiwan to behave like a sugar daddy. Apart from the moral and legal questions associated with checkbook diplomacy, Taiwan’s economic power these days is no match for China, so it is not possible for it to go on using this approach to compete with China for diplomatic recognition. In view of Taiwan’s weakening position vis-a-vis its opponent in the international community, this country will have to get away from its obsession with the number of diplomatic allies it has. Only such a change of emphasis can offer a real solution.