This has not been a good week on the diplomatic front for our tiny nation. The number of diplomatic friendly faces dropped by one overnight on Thursday as Gambian President Yahya Jammeh suddenly announced he was cutting ties with Taipei.
The announcement came just hours after Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) had taken pains to reassure legislators and the public that China setting up a trade office in the capital of Sao Tome and Principe on Tuesday would not affect Taiwan’s diplomatic ties with that nation. Lin said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been keeping tabs on the situation and had been informed in advance by Sao Tomean officials.
However, not only was the ministry caught flatfooted by reports of Jammeh’s decision, but Gambian Ambassador Alhagie Ebrima N.H. Jarjou said early yesterday morning that he had not been informed either. Although ministry officials later said that they had obtained “related information” before Jammeh’s announcement, that appeared to be an initial effort to save face, as did the fudging on whether Taipei would now sever ties with Banjul.
Putting on a brave face, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Ko (柯森耀) said the government had been “shocked” by the announcement and found it regrettable.
Efforts by ministry officials and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) to deny a link between China’s efforts to expand its economic, political and diplomatic presence in Africa and the move by Jammeh appear disingenuous. For Jiang to say that the Gambia’s decision appeared “unrelated to Beijing” because the West African nation had not moved immediately to establish ties with China made it look like the administration is clutching at straws — as did his comment that while there was no apparent “proof” that Beijing had played a role, the government would “not rule out any possibility” as it looks into the matter.
It is hard to have confidence that the government would be able to find a “smoking gun” behind Banjul’s move, given its ability to overlook the multitude of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan as it insists on pursuing ever-tighter ties with Beijing.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has consistently claimed that his "flexible diplomacy" policy has helped Taiwan end its diplomatic isolation and resolve confrontation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. He even bragged two years ago that thanks to his policy, Beijing had rejected requests by three of Taiwan’s allies to establish diplomatic ties with China.
The era of “checkbook” diplomacy may have ended, but it is not just naive but also dangerous to think that Beijing has not and will not try to winnow down the number of Taipei’s diplomatic allies even as it pushes Ma to open Taiwan up to China.
Given the well-publicized drive by Beijing over the past decade to boost its foothold in Africa and the boom in Chinese investment and trade with the continent, the government and the foreign ministry should have ramped up their outreach to our allies there.
In contrast with the focus on relations with allies in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Oceania, Africa has gotten short shrift since the turn of the century.
Ma made a 12-day trip to Africa in April last year, visiting Swaziland, Burkina Faso and the Gambia, although he was forced to cancel the stop in Sao Tome and Principe because that nation’s president was on a trip to Cuba. It was Ma’s sixth overseas trip since becoming president, but the first time in 10 years that Taiwan’s leader had been to Africa. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) visited Africa in 2000 and 2002.
Taiwan will always be at a disadvantage to China in its diplomatic efforts, but that does not mean that we should act as if Beijing’s “goodwill” toward Taipei counts for much.