Taiwan was bracing for the prospect of a new round of diplomatic departures after The Gambia yesterday became the first country in more than five years to sever formal ties with Taipei.
The island feared the surprise decision by the tiny West African nation could encourage others - especially Taiwan's three remaining backers in Africa - to shutter their embassies in favour of building ties with Beijing.
No country had withdrawn its ambassador since mainland-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Yong-jeou took office in May 2008, a fact that has been attributed to a tacit agreement between Beijing and Taipei not to poach each other's allies.
The last country to sever formal ties with Taiwan was Malawi, in January 2008. Since then, the mainland has grown into the world's second-largest economy and dramatically expanded aid and investment to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
The Gambia's departure leaves Taiwan with formal ties to just 22, mostly small, countries including Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Swaziland in Africa. Most large nations abandoned Taipei decades ago to open ties to Beijing, which has regarded Taiwan as a breakaway province since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
The statement by the office of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announcing the move appeared to catch Taiwanese authorities off guard.
"This decision has been taken in our strategic national interest," the statement said, adding that The Gambia was proud to be Taiwan's "very strong and reliable partner for the past 18 years, the results of which are there for every Taiwanese to see".
It said The Gambia would "remain friends" with the Taiwanese people.
Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah expressed shock and regret at the decision, saying the island would review all aid to The Gambia, as well as co-operative projects.
Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Simon Ko yesterday said there was no sign that The Gambia's was considering the move.
Hsu Yung-ming, associate professor of political science at Soochow University, said the departure could start a "domino effect".
"The mainland has established itself as one of the big economic powers in the world," Hsu said. "It is not surprising for more and more Taiwanese allies to bow to Beijing, especially when Taiwan's own economic clout has been declining sharply in recent years."
Other countries with diplomatic missions in Taiwan, including Panama, have reportedly considered cutting ties with Taipei only to be refused by Beijing, which is more concerned with maintaining cross-strait relations. Co-operation between the mainland and Taiwan has improved dramatically during Ma's tenure.
Hong Lei , a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing, said mainland officials had not been approached by The Gambia. "We only learned about this through foreign media, and before that the Chinese side has had no contact with Gambia," Hong said, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.