The Gambia’s sudden announcement that it was severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan stunned the government. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no prior inkling, and Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s announcement of his decision via a posting on Facebook violated diplomatic protocol. The Republic of China (ROC) embassy, the ministry, the Cabinet and the Presidential Office all learned about the break through the media, which shows that the foreign affairs establishment was completely oblivious to what was going on.
In a bid to save the relationship, the ministry quickly dispatched a special delegation to Banjul, but its envoys were unable to meet with Jammeh. The government announced on Monday that it was cutting ties with the Gambia.
This was a heavy blow, not only to the nation, but to the ministry and the entire foreign affairs establishment. That the ministry and others could be taken completely off-guard shows that they had completely misread the situation and were at a total loss as to what to do after hearing of Jammeh’s announcement.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) has said that the diplomatic personnel who dealt with relations with the Gambia will be disciplined. To focus on the staff of the embassy in Banjul smacks of scapegoatism. The ministry’s supervision of the situation was clearly lacking, which implies that the whole diplomatic system is dysfunctional. It is hard to see how Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) can avoid taking responsibility.
Still, the most important issue is where to assign responsibility for the loss of an ally. Prior to Jammeh’s announcement, the Gambia was best known among Taiwanese for the picture of Jammeh and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) doing push-ups together during Ma’s visit to Banjul in April last year. The two seemed to be the best of friends, and now Ma is probably the one who is suffering most from this sudden severance of ties.
The government keeps stressing that cross-strait relations are fine, that there is a diplomatic truce and that Taiwan has given up on checkbook diplomacy, but this is hogwash. In recent years, Taiwan has spent hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars in assistance to the Gambia — and other allies — in the form of trade, training and technological transfers, thus continuing to use money to maintain relations.
The government’s diplomatic truce with China is dependent on Beijing’s goodwill. This is too risky. The “diplomatic truce” — in which neither China nor Taiwan seeks to undermine the other’s diplomatic relations — is an illusion, and the result of the government’s self-deception is that time is running out for Taiwan’s diplomatic status as a sovereign nation. Ma must take responsibility for this policy mistake.
In the past, Taiwan was hoping for dual recognition across the Taiwan Strait in order to put an end to the diplomatic zero-sum game, but this was rejected by Beijing. The result is that other countries will either sever diplomatic relations with Taipei to set up ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the other way round.
The Gambia has set a precedent. When Jammeh announced his nation was cutting ties with Taiwan, he expressed a willingness to establish ties with China, but said nothing had been finalized. So far China appears unwilling to rush into the breach, which means that Jammeh is now waiting in line for Beijing’s recognition.
This situation poses a new challenge to Taiwan’s foreign policy. If Beijing were to establish relations with the Gambia at a later date, it could create a domino effect among Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. The government must conduct a full review of its foreign policy and come up with a new strategy for stabilizing Taiwan’s diplomatic relations.