Analysts see China behind Gambia loss

‘NATIONAL STRATEGIC INTERESTS’::Analysts said the Gambia was looking to China to lessen its reliance on the West. Taiwan is sending a delegation to try to salvage ties

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  Staff reporter

Sun, Nov 17, 2013 - Page 1

The contention of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh that severing his country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan was a result of evaluation of “national strategic interests” was a reflection of China’s looming presence in Africa, despite the claimed lack of Chinese involvement in his decision to ditch Taiwan, analysts said.

Taipei and Beijing on Friday both said they were caught by surprise by the announcement by Jammeh on Thursday that he had cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which date back to 1995, with immediate effect.

Beijing said it was not in contact with the Gambia prior to Jammeh’s announcement, while President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration quickly denied that China intentionally influenced the Gambia’s move.

However, an interview with Jammeh published by the London-based New African Magazine a day after he severed ties with the Commonwealth on Oct. 2 showed how he views China in his strategic thoughts on the Gambia’s national interests.

Jammeh said: “The advent of China in Africa has given the Africans the latitude to choose who they want to work with. And this is a threat to the West, to their hedge funds and so forth, so they will do anything to discredit China.”

Under fire from Western donor nations over the Gambia having had one of Africa’s worst human rights records under his leadership, Jammeh criticized Western colonialism while speaking about China’s approach to Africa, which offers loans and aid to African countries with no conditions attached.

“Today, we also have the Gulf states, we have Asia and the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], but what is more important is to work with whoever has a conscience. I am not saying that all the Western countries are vampires, there are people and countries there who have a conscience, who have always stood up for African interests, but they are very few,” Jammeh said in the interview.

The views of Jammeh showed that as China’s clout in Africa grows, not only in the Gambia, but also in Sao Tome and Principe, the first of Taiwan’s allies in Africa to open a Chinese trade mission recently, the “China factor” has been embedded in their strategic thoughts on national interests, Academia Sinica research fellow Lin Cheng-yi (林正義) said.

Among the various factors that led to the Gambia’s move, possibly including unanswered demands for more aid from Taiwan, investment prospects in the untapped offshore oil reserves the Gambia holds, as well as those of Sao Tome and Principe, which are of interest to China, were certainly a factor, Lin said.

In an analysis published yesterday, Pa Nderry M’Bai, the managing editor and publisher of Gambian online newspaper Freedom Newspaper, said that prior to Jammeh’s decision, some Chinese companies were issued with licenses to explore Gambia’s potential oil reserves, and millions of dollars had already been deposited into a foreign bank account, in which Jammeh and his Secretary-General and Presidential Affairs Minister Momodou Sabally are the co-signatories to the offshore drilling bank account.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), an assistant professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, said the strategic calculations behind Jammeh’s move to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan were connected with its plans to develop relations with China.

Given what Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said on Friday, there is no evidence it was arranged by China, Huang said.

It could be that the Gambia “unilaterally” calculated what it could earn from China in the future in return for its initiative to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Huang said.

“After all, Gambia can develop its relations with all other countries in the world [except China] while remaining an ally of Taiwan,” he said.

To salvage ties with the Gambia, Richard Shih (石瑞琦), the ambassador to Banjul from 2008 to 2011, was sent to the Gambia by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct “more direct and frank” communication with Jammeh to avoid misunderstandings, the ministry said yesterday.

Leading a delegation composed of technical personnel who have become close with Jammeh in cooperation projects, Shih, director of the ministry’s Department of Protocol, was scheduled to arrive in Banjul yesterday evening.

Local media in the Gambia reported that Jammeh is heading to Kuwait tomorrow for a state visit and to attend the Arab-African summit.

The ministry said it hoped that Shih and Ambassador to the Gambia Samuel Chen (陳士良) could sit down with Jammeh before his departure to Kuwait.