The rumors, which had been circulating for a while, were confirmed early in the evening of March 17. China was resuming diplomatic ties with The Gambia. The African country had been in political limbo since November 2013, when it had severed ties with Taipei only to be spurned by Beijing, ostensibly because the Chinese government did not want to shatter the “diplomatic truce” it had struck with President Ma Ying-jeou. Now the question on everybody’s lips is whether Beijing’s apparent change of heart constitutes a “warning” to Tsai Ing-wen, who will assume the presidency on May 20, and signals an end to the informal arrangement whereby the two sides of the Taiwan Strait wouldn’t “steal” diplomatic allies from each other. The short answer is maybe, but even if that were the case, there is no reason for Taiwan to panic.
It is important to point out that Thursday’s breakthrough didn’t in itself sound the death knell of the truce between Taipei and Beijing. What Beijing did wasn’t steal a diplomatic ally of Taiwan, because The Gambia hadn’t been one since late 2013. Moreover, states have every right to look after their interests, and we can be pretty certain that Banjul, which had been left out to dry after dropping Taipei, had been knocking at doors in Beijing for quite a while.
If Beijing’s intention by resuming ties with The Gambia was indeed to pressure Tsai ahead of her inauguration and to score a few psychological points, then it should also be noted that it also wins itself an impoverished country whose relationship will be primarily parasitical. According to the CIA World Factbook, The Gambia ranks No. 182 globally in terms of GDP (China is first, and Taiwan 21st). Just as it was when Banjul had ties with Taipei, this will be mostly a one-way street in which The Gambia takes from its ally—and that is infrastructure investment, which given the nature of the Jammeh regime almost ensures that it will be misappropriated and end up in the bank accounts of senior officials. Furthermore, with the British newspaper, the Independent, once referring to it as “a cripplingly poor country ruled by fear,” The Gambia is probably a more natural ally of China than Taiwan, whose continued relations with despotic regimes in some of the darkest places of the earth contradicted the liberal democratic norms that define it.
Now, let us speculate for a moment and assume that this week’s development was, as some fear, a shot across the bow and a signal that the diplomatic truce is coming to an end as Beijing seeks to “punish” Taiwan for the choices it made democratically. Given its financial attraction and no-questions-asked form of economic assistance, there is no doubt that Beijing could rapidly pinch a few of Taiwan’s remaining allies. It is an open secret, in fact, that a number of them have been begging Beijing to do so. But then if Beijing did embark on such a policy, what would it really accomplish? Yes, it would further isolate Taiwan internationally and no doubt have a temporary psychological impact on the population here. However, the benefits of doing so would have to be weighed against the alienation that this would cause in Taiwan. Unless Beijing has given up on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Taiwanese—euphemistically known as “peaceful unification”—such a course of action would likely be counterproductive.
Let us nevertheless assume, for the sake of the argument, that Beijing has decided to end the truce. What would be the consequences for Taiwan? Yes, that would signify the loss of a few voices at the U.N. General Assembly, which will occasionally support motions calling for Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” at U.N. specialized agencies, and perhaps a loss of prestige. But it wouldn’t be catastrophic. In the end, the strength of Taiwan’s alliances lies not with the few microstates with which it has official diplomatic relations, but rather with nations that have a real say in international affairs. And those countries are the U.S., Japan, Singapore, Australia, India, Canada and others. Unofficial though its ties may be with those countries, those relationships are hugely constrictive and contribute much more towards Taiwan’s resilience than any combination of the 22 official allies it still has. If Taiwan is to secure meaningful participation at a U.N. body, it won’t be because Nauru and Tuvalu, say, voted in its favor at the General Assembly, but because the U.S. and other major powers made it happen. The same can be said about its security, economic prosperity and so on.
Taiwan’s special status has forced it to become a post-modern state, one whose existence is not contingent on official recognition. While having official diplomatic allies does confer legitimacy in the traditional sense, Taiwan would not cease to exist if those relations were to end. The truth of the matter is that Taiwan probably spends too much capital seeking to maintain official ties with some of those statelets. A good share of that energy should instead be redirected towards furthering mutually beneficial relationships with countries that can truly help Taiwan, even if this occurs without the prestige that is attached to ambassadorial posts in exotic capitals.
Edited by Olivia Yang
J. Michael Cole is the editor-in-chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com, a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are his alone.