Gambia breaks relations with surprised Taiwan
TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — The West African nation of Gambia has cut off diplomatic ties with a surprised Taiwan, but China said Friday it had no prior knowledge of the move that now leaves Taiwan with a handful of allies around the world.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to say whether China now intends to establish formal relations with the tiny country on Africa’s Atlantic coast. China almost invariably climbs into the void when countries break their ties with Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949.
With the loss of Gambia, Taiwan is now recognized by only 22 countries, mostly small and impoverished nations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the south Pacific. Swaziland, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso are its only remaining diplomatic allies in Africa. China is recognized by more than 200 countries.
In a statement released by Gambia’s presidency, the tiny and increasingly reclusive African country said Thursday it had “come to the conclusion to review and disengage from diplomatic relations with Taiwan.”
“This decision has been taken in our strategic national interest,” the statement said. “Despite the end of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, we will still remain friends with the people of Taiwan.”
Repeated phone calls seeking comment from Gambia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Aboubacar Senghore went unanswered Friday.
At a briefing in Taipei, Foreign Ministry official Ko Sen-yao stressed that Taiwan had been taken by surprise by the Gambian move. It appeared to reflect a personal decision by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, Ko said without elaborating.
In 1994, Jammeh grabbed power of Gambia, a popular beach destination for British tourists. Human rights groups have accused the government of killing and torturing civilians in recent years and Jammeh has become increasingly isolated. Earlier this year, he announced that Gambia would be withdrawing from the Commonwealth, a collection of 54 nations made up largely of former British colonies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Friday that Beijing was caught unaware by the Gambian move, strongly suggesting that the purported diplomatic truce remains in effect.
“We learned the relevant information from the foreign media,” Hong said. “Before that, China was not in contact with Gambia.”
Until Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office 5 ½ years ago, the two sides competed furiously to win diplomatic allies, frequently by offering monetary and other material incentives to wavering countries. Since then, however, no defections from Taiwan have occurred amid widespread reports of a diplomatic truce between Beijing and Taipei.
As recently as January, Gambia was still posting flowery statements on the government website, proclaiming ties with Taiwan.
When Gambia hosted Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang that month, Gambia’s president said that relations between the two nations “surpassed political relations” and had been “extended to a family affair,” according to a press release posted on the website of the Gambian ministry of foreign affairs.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson and Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.