Is the Truce Over?While the incoming DPP administration does not want to demonstrate weakness in cross-strait relations, it must avoid overreacting to The Gambia’s resumption of diplomatic relations with China
On March 17, The Gambia restored relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in effect ending the eight-year “diplomatic truce” between the Republic of China (ROC). The Gambia unilaterally broke relations with the ROC in November of 2013 in part as a means to woo both Chinese recognition and international assistance.
Prior to the truce, both sides of the Taiwan Strait commonly engaged in what was pejoratively called dollar or checkbook diplomacy. Admittedly Taiwanese officials usually viewed aid as a means of giving back to the international community, yet the vast majority of Taiwanese assistance goes to recognizing countries. If one side lost a diplomatic ally, this simply freed up potential resources for the losing side to woo over a different country. Unlike diplomatic recognition elsewhere, where revocation is rare, several countries switched back and forth presumably for economic and or political gain. For example, Senegal and the Central African Republic have switched recognition five times since 1962.
Furthermore, my previous research suggested the limitations of Taiwan’s efforts to hold onto diplomatic allies, regardless of the potential incentives offered. For example, as country’s exports increased, they were less likely to recognize the ROC over the PRC. The findings counterintuitively suggest of course that Taiwanese assistance to diplomatic allies should not focus upon export-oriented growth, a factor that might enhance their economic fortunes.
The diplomatic truce during the Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九) administration benefited both Taiwan and China. Small powers could not play off both sides for their own gain and China and Taiwan both saved resources and prevented worsening cross-strait tensions. The truce also weathered several potential strains, including the Haitian earthquake, where the PRC offered humanitarian assistance to one of Taiwan’s long-term allies and Sao Tome and Principe’s president visiting the PRC in 2014.
A knee-jerk reaction by Taiwan would be to try to find a replacement for the loss of The Gambia, similar to a Major League Baseball team trying to replace their former star player with a flashy free agent. However, such a strategy does little for Taiwan. The Gambia after all was not a major trading partner, served no security interests, and remains one of Africa’s more brutal authoritarian regimes. President Yaya Jammeh’s rule has included restrictions on expression, life sentences for those of the LGBT community, and President Jammeh’s own claim to have an herbal cure for AIDS.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of course does not wish to be viewed as weak on cross-strait relations, emphasizing their commitment to strengthening ties with their remaining twenty-two diplomatic allies. It is also easy to view The Gambia within the lens of Taiwan’s historic January elections and assume broader Chinese strategic intent to restart a diplomatic competition that favors Beijing, rather than cautiously view this as an isolated case in which Taiwan tangibly has lost little. Unofficial relations with stable and powerful democracies provide far more in regards to Taiwan’s national interests, while myopically focusing on the potential return of diplomatic battles serves only to constrain Taiwan’s options.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor in political science at Western Kentucky University. His main research focuses on the impact of electoral reforms in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan compared to similar legislative systems. His broader research interests include electoral politics, domestic and international politics of East Asia, and qualitative and quantitative methods.