A sudden break in relations between Taiwan and one of its few diplomatic allies points to growing anger in China toward the Taipei leadership and analysts warn of more such moves by Beijing.
Sao Tome and Principe, a western African ally of Taiwan’s since 1997, cut ties Wednesday and Taiwan followed by disbanding the embassy in Taipei and stopping a range of exchanges. The Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council said China used “money diplomacy” to push Sao Tome and Principe to make the break.
The cut in ties, a first in more than eight years, follows Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s December 2 phone call with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Trump's later comment that he saw no need to live by an agreement that the United States recognize only China, not Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and seeks to curb its international profile.
Political analysts say China maneuvered to get the African country away from Taiwan and some expect more allies to switch to Beijing over the next year. China also held an air force drill near Taiwan’s air defense identification zone after the Trump call, the island’s defense ministry said.
“They would just want to intensify pressure given to President Tsai,” said Liu Yi-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. “This is not an isolated breakup of diplomatic relationships. It’s (going to be) three to five countries, which are like dominos.”
Taiwan has 21 diplomatic allies compared to more than 170 that recognize China. Most of Taiwan’s are poor countries in Africa, Central America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. They look to Taiwan largely for development aid, and before 2008 the two would offer competing sums to make allies switch sides.
From 2008 until this year, as the government of Taiwan ex-president Ma Ying-jeou held upbeat talks with China, no allies switched sides.
Taiwan had helped Sao Tome and Principe, an oil-dependent country of 190,000 people off the coast of Gabon, cut its incidence of malaria dramatically, the foreign ministry in Taipei said. Taiwan in turn looks to its allies for a voice in the United Nations, which Taiwan left in 1971. China will not let it back in.
That exit from the United Nations makes it “clear that the People’s Republic of China is the only legal government for all of China,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Wednesday in response to a question about the Sao Tome and Principe break in Taiwan relations.
Beijing “tempted” Sao Tome and Principe to leave, according to a Mainland Affairs Council statement, which expresses “dissatisfaction and regret.”
Before Tsai called Trump, she had irritated Beijing by snubbing its condition for two-way dialogue, that both sides consider themselves part of “one China.” Tsai wants a higher degree of autonomy for Taiwan if the two sides meet for talks.
The number of tourists from China to Taiwan has dropped since Tsai took office. Since April, China has asked other countries to send it any offshore-based Taiwanese fraud suspects that target Chinese citizens.
China may stagger any further pressure on Taiwan’s allies to break ties so Taipei has a chance to meet Beijing’s demands, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.
“If Beijing goes forward on this plan, it would break one or two at a time to make Taiwan feel the pain of increasingly losing ties and therefore to give Taiwan room for backing out,” Lin said.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Lin Tai-wei indicated at a news conference Wednesday he would not match China in any resumption of checkbook diplomacy.
“Given our practical approach to foreign relations, we don’t like to see money games,” Lee said in response to a question about whether Sao Tome and Principe had asked Taiwan for $200 million before the break in ties.
“We’d rather help with some plans to improve the people’s welfare, something citizens of Sao Tome can feel, but we don’t think it’s our country’s responsibility to fill a financial black hole and we’re not going to do that,” he said.