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June 28, 2017

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Misinterpretation of Gambian gambit

It has been more than six months since The Gambia withdrew its embassy in the R.O.C.; however, the West African nation has yet to cement official relations with the People's Republic, which begs the question: Exactly how did President Yahya Jammeh's administration profit from this move?

At least one Gambian daily asked the same question in November last year, listing the various benefits that The Gambia enjoyed through its ties with Taiwan.

In response to the unexpected turn of events, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was quick to rule out the possibility of mainland Chinese influence. Foreign Minister David Lin reiterated that Taipei had come to a "diplomatic truce" with Beijing, dismissing the likelihood that The Gambia would establish ties with mainland China in the next six months. It has been seven months, and there still aren't any signs of Jammeh coming any closer to getting Beijing to set up an embassy on Gambian soil.

Beijing partnering up with The Gambia would be tantamount to slapping the Ma administration in the face, considering how often the R.O.C. president has touted the pragmatism, feasibility and advantages of his "flexibly diplomacy" policy.

With anti-Chinese sentiment running considerably higher in the wake of the Sunflower Movement, it would indeed be somewhat of a surprise if Beijing were to do so, considering that the current leadership seems comparatively eager to maintain a semblance of friendliness in pursuit of closer cross-strait relations. The groundbreaking Mainland Affairs Council-Taiwan Affairs Office meeting in February, at least, seems indicative of a willingness on Beijing's part to take a less hard-line approach; with the way things are right now, brains are more likely to succeed than brawn.

If Beijing wants to influence some sort of change in the China-wary Democratic Progressive Party, it needs do its part in showing that the current cross-strait framework is a feasible approach to circumventing political conundrums; otherwise, it only ends up justifying the deeply ingrained suspicions among pan-green supporters.

That The Gambia has little natural resources suggests less of an incentive for mainland China to engage in open competition with Taiwan over diplomatic ties, but as far as The Gambia is concerned, switching recognition seems to make more sense (if it can get Beijing to reach an agreement), considering that mainland China is its largest trading partner; however, Taipei has repeatedly stressed that it is not against diplomatic allies establishing economic ties with Beijing.

According to MOFA officials, Jammeh wrote in his letter to Ma that the R.O.C. no longer seemed to attach importance to its ties with The Gambia, citing "strategic interests" behind his decision to sever ties.

Officials later admitted that the decision may have had something to do with Taiwan turning down Jammeh's demand for US$10 million. Apparently, the Gambian president requested that the money be paid in a lump sum, without providing a plan on how or what the money was to be spent on.

Jammeh is in an awkward position, because considering the stakes involved, it is unlikely that Beijing will establish ties with his country, at least not while the Kuomintang is control on this side of the strait. Not only did Jammeh not get the US$10 million he wanted, but he also kissed a cash cow (in the form of R.O.C. aid) goodbye. That being said, the circumstances would be different if hard-liners on both sides of the strait were in the driver's seat.

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