And then there were 22

This week, the government of the African nation of Gambia announced that it would immediately end all ties with the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) and withdraw its embassy from the Taiwanese capital city of Taipei. This surreptitious end of formal linkage with Gambia brings the number of countries that recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan down to 22 in total.

While the government of China in Beijing denies having any discussions regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between their government and current administration of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Gambia is already looking to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and is beginning preliminary negotiations with Beijing. Gambia’s president has stated that he believes opening diplomatic ties with the PRC will be a crucial step towards his “Vision 2020” for the development of Gambia, and that although Gambia has been a strong supporter of Taiwan for the past 18 years, cutting off relations with the island nation is necessary for the national interests of Gambia.

Gambia is the first country to renounce recognition of Taiwan since the beginning of the Ma presidential administration in 2008. The remaining countries recognizing the Republic of China consist mostly of small island nations or struggling Central American economies and none of the top global powers officially recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. Despite an agreement between the Ma administration and the Chinese government in Beijing not to poach each other’s allies, nearly all of the countries formerly recognizing the Republic of China have shifted their diplomatic preference to China, a trend highly indicative of the growing political power concurrent with China’s meteoric economic growth.

The Taiwanese government believes that the suspension of ties between their country and Gambia almost certainly came as a personal decision of President Jammeh, a notorious erratic ruler who earlier this year announced that Gambia would also leave the Commonwealth. Though it has not specified the exact amount, the Ma government has confirmed that in January of this year the Jammeh government made a financial request in excess of $10 million USD, a demand inconsistent with the Ma administration’s “flexible diplomacy” policy which aims to retain all of Taiwan’s remaining allies at the lowest possible cost to fragile Taiwanese economic interests.

The ending of ties with Gambia, though perhaps not posing a serious economic or political problem to Taiwan in the near future, is certainly part of an alarming trend which sees the PRC growing in international influence and the list of allies of the Taiwanese government becoming smaller and smaller. Though the Ma administration is often criticized for being too acquiescent to Beijing, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the continuing negotiation of free trade agreements between Taiwan and other East Asian nations sees Taipei struggling to hold its own against the further encroachment of China upon its sovereignty.

The rapid economic growth in China is bringing with it a concurrent growth in military capability and an aggressive expansion of its foreign policy, all with the stated goal in mind of eventual reunification with Taiwan. Taiwan, which was ceded to the Japanese empire in 1911 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, is currently ruled by the Guomindang (or Nationalist) party, a political party originating in mainland China and exiled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. Although governed independently, Taiwan is still claimed by the People’s Republic of China and the government in Taipei is declared a rouge provincial government with no legitimate sovereignty. Although the situation has been relatively stable since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as the Taiwanese president in 2008, tensions continue to exist on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as China seeks to further isolate Taiwan diplomatically in preparation for an eventual reunification.

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