Taiwan 'needs to rethink' foreign policy after Gambia exit

African nation's shock decision to cut ties with island seen as sign Taipei relying too much on Beijing's goodwill to help it keep its remaining allies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 November, 2013, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 November, 2013, 5:10am

Taiwan has a lot of soul searching to do over how far its "flexible diplomacy" policy can go after the Gambia became the first country in nearly six years to cut ties with the island, local analysts said yesterday.

It took Taipei until yesterday to finally announce the end of bilateral ties after the tiny West African nation surprised the island by declaring on Friday a rupture of diplomatic relations.

The first move of the government of mainland-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou was to check if the so-called "China factor" was behind the Gambia's action. It breathed a sigh of relief when Beijing later denied it had anything to do with it, and that it had no intention to establish diplomatic ties with the African nation.

Taiwanese lawmakers were swift to ask the Ma government what had gone wrong.

"If Ma's so-called flexible diplomacy policy bears fruit and allows Taiwan to celebrate diplomatic harvests, I don't know how you can explain such a humiliating act from the Gambia, which cut ties with us without even bothering to give us prior notice," said Chiu Yi-ying, a legislator for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

She shot the question at Foreign Minister David Lin during a legislature meeting yesterday to discuss the issue. The Gambia only informed Taiwan about the rupture early on Friday morning, roughly one hour ahead of the first reports of the news in foreign media. Both Lin and Premier Jiang Yi-huah later admitted they had been left in the dark before the abrupt notice.

No country had abrogated diplomatic ties with Taiwan since Ma took office in May 2008, a fact that has been attributed to his policy of engaging Beijing and causing a warming of cross-strait relations.

Ma had called for a "diplomatic truce" with the mainland and finally won a tacit agreement with Beijing not to poach each other's allies. He described it as "flexible diplomacy", which would leave Taiwan some international room while helping the two sides save money.

Local analysts said Ma's flexible diplomacy policy was based on the theory that Beijing would not try to win diplomatic recognition from Taiwan's allies.

"But at the same time, it makes the Ma government pay less attention to its allies, as reflected by the cut of almost 50 per cent in its foreign-affairs related budget from NT$18 billion (HK$4.7 billion) in 2008," said Hsu Kuo-yung, a political-talk-show host.

Lin Yu-fang, a legislator for the ruling Kuomintang, revealed yesterday that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh had previously demanded US$30 million from Taiwan, but was refused by Ma's government.

Professor Tung Chen-yuan, director of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei, said Ma should not base his foreign policy solely on retaining mainland goodwill.

"His flexible diplomacy policy has a limit," Tung said.