INTERVIEW: Ma shares
blame for split with the Gambia: academic
In a recent interview with ‘Liberty Times’ (the sister paper of the ‘Taipei
Times’), Academia Sinica research fellow Lin Cheng-yi told staff reporter Tzou
Jiing-wen that President Ma Ying-jeou could not be absolved of blame for the
severance of diplomatic ties with the Gambia and should make known to Beijing
that Taiwan needs to maintain a basic number of diplomatic allies, or else
development of cross-strait relations could be affected
Liberty Times: Could you give us an analysis on the relation between the
severance of diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the Gambia and the China factor?
Lin Cheng-yi (林正義): A diplomatic crisis [as in the case with the Gambia]
does not simply happen, it always leaves certain signs.
Can we be sure that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh really made the decision [to
sever ties] due to his dictatorial style [of leadership] and there were no clues
to hint at such a possibility?
That the Gambia had asked earlier this year if Taiwan could loan it more money
and was turned down may be a reason, but Jammeh’s understanding of China’s role
in Africa could have also played a role.
It is clear that Jammeh, whose comments over the past year show hostility
towards Western colonialism, as well as the Commonwealth of Nations, from which
it declared its withdrawal, feels that the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China
and South Africa], especially China, would give the nation an alternate choice
over Western nations.
Jammeh’s aspirations for the Gambia to become a principal exporter of crude oil
may also play a role in his seeking to make China a strategic ally due to
funding and technology from Chinese companies.
China’s strategic [expansion] in Africa had been underway since the
administration of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), which was evident in
its hosting the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.
Of the 54 countries in the African Union, only four did not participate in the
forum, and in comparison with the other countries they were possibly assessing
what national benefits might be sacrificed for choosing to side with Taiwan.
This month, China set up trade offices in Sao Tome and Principe, a country that
has 16 years of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
At the end of the month we saw the Gambia, which had diplomatic ties with Taiwan
for 18 years, choose to sever relations.
Over the past few years, China’s state-owned corporations have made promises to
fund the construction of public infrastructure in Sao Tome. At the same time,
Beijing has also established offices in many of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies.
Many of those allies have reciprocated and established offices in China, and in
this way, we see that Taiwan’s allies in Africa are faced with a choice.
As Chinese influence is evidently at work, there is no need to emphasize that
China has nothing to do with the Gambia’s severance of diplomatic ties.
The problem now is to ascertain if our diplomatic staff erred and were unable to
notice the clues and signs due to insufficient national resources [in the
international arena] and the many years of diplomatic truce between Taiwan and
If we cannot even detect the reason why we have lost an ally then that is truly
wasting taxpayers’ money.
The president is in a position to influence diplomatic affairs and President Ma
Ying-jeou (馬英九) can’t shed his responsibility in this Gambia matter.
Both the Presidential Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) need to
pool governmental and civil resources and discuss the Gambian issue.
They then need to turn their focus on other allies, especially those that have
made explicit statements that they were considering establishing formal
relations with China, such as the Republic of Panama, the Republic of Honduras,
or others whose ministers of foreign affairs have already visited China.
A list of such nations should be made and monitored if the ministry is to tell
the public that they have done their job.
LT: What is your opinion on the implementation of the “diplomatic truce?”
Lin: The ‘diplomatic truce’ could not exist forever. It hinges on which
political party is in power [in Taiwan].
[Former Chinese president] Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and [incumbent Chinese President] Xi
Jinping (習近平) tacitly consented to the [implementation of] a diplomatic truce
because the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] accepted the so-called “1992
consensus” (九二共識) and the “one China” framework (一中架構).
So for now, China is willing to let Taiwan keep its 20-odd diplomatic allies
because the KMT is the ruling party. However, should another transfer of power
occur, would the “diplomatic truce” still exist?
If the Ma administration wishes to establish a truly successful diplomatic
truce, it needs to stand up to the test of whether China is willing to recognize
Taiwan regardless of which party is in power.
On the Chinese side, different leaders have different methods of handling
relations with Taiwan.
During the Hu era, Taiwan was an “observer” at the 2009 World Health Assembly (WHA)
meeting, but during the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) meeting
in Montreal this year, Taiwan was not an observer, but a “special guest.”
The less than satisfactory title in the ICAO meeting, made possible only by
Chinese suggestion, was a promise made by Hu when meeting with KMT honorary
chairman Lien Chan (連戰) at the APEC meeting last year.
Xi has yet to make any large concessions to Taiwan in terms of international
The singular instance that Taiwan was able to become an observer at the WHA had
not been reproduced at the ICAO, and I fear that even this could not survive a
transfer of power in Taiwan.
International participation is very important for Taiwan, and it should not
become a privilege enjoyed due to the policy of one man or a particular
For such reasons I feel that the diplomatic truce has its limits in contributing
to a thaw in cross-strait relations.
Even if there is a diplomatic truce, it is up to the nation’s diplomatic allies
whether they accept such a truce.
From the Gambian incident, it is evident that other nations are getting the
feeling that Taiwan is not placing as much weight on [maintaining relations
with] them in terms of strategic foreign diplomacy.
For their own development and benefit, these nations are starting to consider
alternatives to Taiwan.
For example, the Gambia considered its economic development and increased shares
in its ownership of crude oil.
We should have some sort of standards for these countries, such as whether
offices have been established in China and whether they are mutual or one-sided;
if Chinese companies have built infrastructure projects, as in the case of the
canal in Nicaragua and the hydroelectric power plant in Honduras.
Cross-strait conciliation would not only bring great changes for Taiwan and
China, it would also signal to Taiwanese diplomatic allies or former allies,
such as the Gambia, that there is some space to maneuver to make new demands.
Unless Taiwan no longer needs these allies, diplomatic relations between Taiwan
and its allies hold considerable weight, and the MOFA must consider that methods
that used to work may no longer function in a changing global strategic
When the US and the EU are taking note of the rapid rise of China in Africa and
Latin America, and bearing in mind the active pursuit of global resources by
China, we must recognize that our diplomatic space on the international arena is
being increasingly compressed.
Ma, who came up with the idea of a “flexible diplomacy,” needs to deliver the
public a guarantee that there will not be a second Gambian incident if he wishes
to continue the policy.
LT: Do you have any suggestions for the government in the aftermath of the
split with the Gambia?
Lin: The government must make a general review of how stable all of our
diplomatic allies are and also implement guidelines for diplomatic crises.
For Gambian students still in Taiwan, if possible we should help them finish
their studies before aiding their return home.
It is a distinct possibility that they could one day be part of the elites that
rule the Gambia.
Of the 20-odd allies that Taiwan retains, the government must make clear to them
that severing diplomatic ties would bring for them great losses by hinting at
the fact that Taiwan can provide more for them than China.
In his inaugural speech in 2008, Ma said that only by ensuring that the Republic
of China is not isolated internationally can cross-strait relations see further
Therefore, diplomacy should be tied into cross-strait relations, and Bejing must
know that even after a transfer of power in Taipei, Taiwan still needs, and has
the capability of maintaining, diplomatic allies.
If Taiwan cannot maintain the most basic diplomatic relations, cross-strait
relations will be impacted.
Translated by staff writer Jake Chung