China formally resumed diplomatic relations with the tiny West African nation of Gambia on March 17 after 21 years. The two nations cut ties in 1995 when Gambia became one of a handful of African countries to formally recognize Beijing’s rival, Taiwan. Gambia tried to reverse course in 2013 by renouncing its recognition of Taiwan. But China, as part of a tacit agreement reached with Taiwan in 2008 to refrain from poaching each other’s allies, refused to reciprocate — leaving Gambia in limbo. The diplomatic truce between Taipei and Beijing now appears to be broken, highlighting nascent tension between China and Taiwan’s new, potentially uncooperative ruling party.
The re-establishment of ties between a rising great power and one of Africa’s smallest nations is not in and of itself noteworthy. However, Gambia and a host of other marginal international players have been part of a decadeslong contest between Beijing and Taipei for international recognition as the rightful ruler of Chinese territory. Both governments require any country seeking formal relations to renounce ties with the other. This dynamic took shape in 1949, when China’s Nationalist government fled into exile on the island of Taiwan and retained its rhetorical claim to all of China. Throughout the first several decades of the Cold War, Taiwan was a U.N. member state representing all of China. Mainland China, by contrast, was an autarkic pariah state with a weak economy.
But in the 1970s, this began to change. The United Nations recognized the government in Beijing in 1971 as the sole representative of China, stripping Taiwan of its seat and prompting a wave of countries to follow suit. The United States recognized Beijing eight years later. Though Taiwan has spent vast sums of money on aid and incentives to persuade its allies to remain on its side, the ensuing period has been one of slow diplomatic attrition for Taipei, particularly once its economic strength began to decline in comparison with the mainland in the 1980s. With the loss of Gambia, only 22 nations now acknowledge Taiwan’s government as the legitimate representative of the entirety of China.
The countries recognizing Taiwan are important only in terms of headcount. None of them are geopolitically significant players or trading partners. For real influence, Taipei still maintains informal ties with key players such as the United States, mostly in the form of cultural liaison offices. The value of those 22 allies lies simply in the fact that they lend Taiwan a limited degree of international standing and indirect representation in international bodies such as the United Nations. Taipei will never be able to compete for these countries’ loyalty with Beijing in terms of trade, aid and investment — the mainland simply has a much deeper well of material resources to drawn upon.
A Clear Warning
Beijing’s recognition of Gambia is meant to send a clear warning to Taiwan’s incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, which will take power under President Tsai Ing-wen in May. Taiwan is in a precarious position regarding the mainland: The island needs to both reap the benefits of a growing Chinese economy and prevent itself from being absorbed into Beijing’s sphere of influence. The DPP and the long-ruling Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, disagree on how to navigate this challenge.
The Kuomintang has held power in Taiwan for most of its history. Ironically, one key pillar of the party's platform aligns with Beijing’s interests: Both the Communist Party of China and the Nationalists cling firmly to the notion that there is a single, undivided China. They simply dispute which party is its rightful ruler. Since 2008, when the Nationalist Party regained power, the party has brought Taiwan closer to the mainland with numerous agreements, including the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and a cross-strait services trade agreement in 2014. But economic growth in Taiwan has remained anemic despite these measures. Deepening ties with the mainland, especially through the 2014 pact, outraged segments of the Taiwanese public, and resulting protests ushered the DPP back into power at the beginning of this year.
But the DPP’s last period in office, from 2000 to 2008, was equally contentious — marked by a low point in cross-strait relations and sluggish economic growth. The party does not formally uphold the one-China principle and is perceived to be in favor of Taiwanese independence — a move that would formally split Taiwan off from the mainland. Tsai has made a point to appear more pragmatic toward the mainland, but Beijing is concerned by her refusal to affirm the 1992 Consensus struck between Beijing and the then-Nationalist-ruled government in Taipei: that there is only one China, but both the mainland and Taiwan would interpret it differently. Beijing’s recognition of Gambia makes it clear that the mainland is willing to further isolate Taipei from the international community if necessary by courting Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies.