The decision by The Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, to break official relations with Taipei is giving Beijing a headache and posing a challenge to the five-year-long diplomatic truce between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Beijing's response will determine whether the diplomatic modus vivendi launched by Ma Ying-jeou can be maintained. Beijing did not provoke this crisis; foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said "China had no contact with Gambia previously" and learned about the decision by President Yahya Jammeh "from the foreign media".
This is the first time since Ma became president in 2008 that one of the 23 countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan has announced a formal break.
Beijing has made clear its acceptance of Ma's proposal of a truce. In 2009, when the left-wing politician Mauricio Funes won the El Salvador presidential election and indicated he wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded that, "despite the absence of diplomatic ties, the Chinese people have friendly feelings towards the Salvador people, and we are willing to carry out friendly exchanges and mutually beneficial co-operation in various areas with Salvador". Thus, it was clear that diplomatic relations with El Salvador were unnecessary and, in fact, unwanted by Beijing.
Today, China's economy is acting as a gigantic magnet. The aid Beijing offers to African countries with which it has diplomatic relations may well be an important reason why Jammeh decided to break relations with Taipei. Beijing needs to reconsider long-standing policies, adopted previously to penalise any country with diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Now Beijing values cross-strait relations more, it needs new policies to deter countries from breaking ties with Taiwan.
Early signs indicate Beijing will respond cautiously to The Gambia's gambit. After all, in 1995, Jammeh broke relations with Beijing in the hope of a better economic deal from Taiwan. In the 1990s, Taiwan was able to conduct "chequebook diplomacy". Today, this option is gone.
Interestingly, the state paper Global Times said: "We might need to talk it through with Taiwan and figure out the situation. Jumping between the two sides should incur a price, instead of being encouraged."
Beijing has demanded to be consulted by Taiwan on membership in international organisations. Now, it seems, it may actually offer Taiwan a chance to voice its views on the situation.
It may not be necessary to punish The Gambia. But Beijing has to send a clear message to any country with diplomatic relations with Taiwan: friendship and trade with mainland China is possible despite diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
This, in fact, is the model established by Sao Tome and Principe, which last week reached an agreement with Beijing on the opening of a trade mission while preserving formal relations with Taiwan. All three parties appear to have accepted this new situation.