China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hand with his Gambian counterpart Neneh Macdouall-Gaye during a meeting in Beijing, China, March 17, 2016.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) shakes hand with his Gambian counterpart Neneh Macdouall-Gaye during a meeting in Beijing, China, March 17, 2016.

TAIPEI - A small West African country’s establishment of relations with China this month is raising concern in Taiwan of a new fight to retain its few diplomatic allies around the world and exert international influence.

The Gambia’s announcement March 17 that it had set up diplomatic ties with China prompted anger from Taiwan’s government and president-elect. They worry that an informal truce has ended with Beijing.

The Gambia had cut ties with Taiwan, one of the world’s most isolated democracies, in November 2013, leaving the Asian island with just 22 formal diplomatic relations.

China has more than 170 allies and uses them to stop Taiwan from pursuing international relations, including participation in United Nations. Since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, Beijing’s Communist government has viewed Taiwan as part of China rather than a state entitled to form ties with foreign countries.

Taiwan looks to its remaining allies, mostly poor countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and the South Pacific, as a voice in the United Nations and as evidence of legitimacy for Taiwan’s government, known as the Republic of China, or ROC.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and
FILE - Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen waves to her supporters after her election victory at party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 16, 2016.

The Gambia squabble will put Taiwan on guard again, said Eleanor Wang, spokeswoman for the island’s foreign ministry.

“For Gambia to decide to set up ties with mainland China, our side expresses regret,” Wang said. “The foreign ministry will keep stepping up its work with the outside world. As for mainland China’s actions to exert pressure, all foreign ministry and overseas representative offices will continue to be on alert, pay rapt attention and protect our country’s interests effectively.”

Since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, Taipei and Beijing set aside political disputes, including so-called "check diplomacy," the competition for alliances with poorer countries by raising each other's development aid pledges.  

Since checkbook diplomacy ended, the two sides have opened landmark dialogue and signed 23 agreements linked to tourism, trade and investment.

The establishment of Beijing’s ties with The Gambia comes about two months before Ma must step down due to term limits and hand the presidency to Tsai Ing-wen, who won Taiwan's January election.

Tsai leads a party with a history of poor China relations, and officials in Beijing have called on her to uphold the conditions for two-way dialogue embraced by the current Taiwanese leadership. Tsai rejects those conditions, which require each side to see itself as part of China, but subject to different interpretations.

Last week China asked The Gambia to acknowledge “one China,” namely the sole legitimacy of the Beijing government. That nod precludes any relations with Taiwan.

The Gambia broke ties with Taiwan without jumping immediately to China as countries did before 2008. The break was described then as a personal decision by Yahya Jammeh, president of the West African country of 1.8 million people.

FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Gambia's
FILE - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh

Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank in Taiwan, said China used The Gambia as a soft signal of what might come after Tsai takes office May 20.

“Now that the truce is no longer in effect – we can’t say it’s completely over, but it’s not completely in effect – they picked a country that would not diminish the number of diplomatic relations with the ROC while effectively [not] renew[ing] a relationship to indicate what might come if after the May 20 [inauguration] speech [is] not clear in terms of the ‘One-China’ policy,” Lei said.

She estimates that five or six other countries now allied with Taiwan are eyeing a shift to China if allowed. China’s allies may get more access to the giant Chinese market rather than Taiwan’s much smaller one.

Tsai is expected to protest any new diplomatic quarrels after taking office but may not directly confront Beijing over the broader issue. She will wait for China to gauge how angry it wants to make the Taiwanese public by buying off small countries, said Hsu Yung-ming, a political scientist with Soochow University in Taipei.

Taiwan also has strong informal relations, particularly economic links with the United States, Japan and countries in Europe.

“She won’t open a competition with China on foreign diplomacy,” Hsu said. “She will instead observes people’s reactions and take a calm attitude. So it’s China that will judge whether these actions toward Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are causing a backlash among Taiwanese people and even whether there’s a negative impact on future cross-Strait relations.”