The last time Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou visited Gambia in 2012, his counterpart Yahya Jammeh challenged him to a press-up contest.
Jammeh won, but it seems his strong-arm tactics did not end there.
Last Thursday Gambia announced that it was breaking off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the “strategic national interest”.
The rumour as to the unofficial reason is that Jammeh was unhappy with the amount of aid that Taiwan has been sending.
But how could threatening to sever ties result in more money?
It stems from the diminishing number of countries claiming full diplomatic relations with Taiwan – an island that was governed by mainland China until the Nationalists fled there to escape Communist forces in 1949. Since then countries have had to choose which regime they will recognise: the mainland, i.e. the People’s Republic of China, or Taiwan, termed by the island’s government as the Republic of China
Initially many countries recognised the government in Taipei. But as that decision lost favour over the decades, almost all have opted to acknowledge the government in Beijing instead, leaving Taiwan with just 22 fully-fledged diplomatic allies today. Most of them are small, impoverished nations.
Taiwan isn’t completely marooned in political terms – it enjoys a good relationship with the United States, for example, even though Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. But for politicians in Taipei there remains a longing for other countries to acknowledge its existence.
Which is why Ma was so desperate to keep Gambia in the club.
When Jammeh’s office announced the cessation of ties, Taiwan immediately sent a team to Gambia to ask him to reconsider. According to the Taiwanese media it never even got to meet him.
Some Taiwanese have speculated that China is behind the break-up and that – as an investor in Africa for years – it must have made overtures to the tiny west African state.
But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei has issued several statements saying that they see no evidence of a Beijing charm offensive.
As several mainland newspapers pointed out, it would be odd for Beijing to make such an approach as relations with Taiwan have improved hugely since Ma took office in 2008.
Instead it appears that Jammeh is the prime mover behind the split. One of Taiwan’s largest newspapers, the United Daily News, reported earlier this year that he had asked for an extra $10 million in financial aid. The request was rejected because it came on top of a pre-agreed aid package and the Gambian government couldn’t explain what the additional sum would be spent on.
Jammeh has shifted allegiances in hope of financial gain in the past. In 1995, a year after he took power in a military coup, he reversed his predecessor’s decision to forge ties with Beijing and reinstated relations with Taipei, apparently in exchange for a dollop of military aid.
But if Jammeh is now hoping that China will come calling, he might be disappointed.
Beijing and Taipei have called a temporary truce to the chequebook diplomacy engaged in before, and Gambia – a nation of just 1.7 million people – doesn’t have much to offer the world’s second largest economy.
“Jumping between the two sides should incur a price, instead of being encouraged. Gambia is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world and is in great need of foreign aid. However, it would be incorrect to demand compensation from the mainland for severing ties with Taiwan,” the Global Times warned.
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