BEIJING/TAIPEI China resumed ties with former Taiwan ally Gambia on Thursday, ending an unofficial diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan following January's landslide election of the leader of a pro-independence party as the self-ruled island's president.
The small West African state was one of a few African countries, along with Burkina Faso, Swaziland and São Tomé and Príncipe, to recognize Taiwan, which China regards as a wayward province to be recovered by force if necessary.
China and Taiwan had for years tried to poach each other's allies, often dangling generous aid packages in front of leaders of developing nations.
But they began an unofficial diplomatic truce after signing a series of landmark trade and economic agreements in 2008 after the election of the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president, as Beijing tried to convince Taiwan of its friendly intentions after decades of hostility and suspicion.
While Gambia severed relations with Taiwan in November 2013, causing anger in Taipei, China had held off establishing formal ties with it until now.
"From here on, China and Gambia's relations have turned over a new leaf," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Gambian counterpart, Neneh Macdouall-Gaye, China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"The early resumption of ties accords with the basic interests of both countries and conforms to the trend of the times and general trend of the development of China-Africa friendship and cooperation," Wang added.
Macdouall-Gaye, in comments carried on Chinese state television, said the Gambian nation supported "the national reunification, peaceful reunification" of China and Taiwan.
Beijing has repeatedly warned against any moves toward independence since Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential and parliamentary elections. Tsai assumes office in May.
Tsai has said she would maintain peace with China, and Chinese state-run media have noted her pledges to maintain the "status quo" with China.
"HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE" ACTION
Taiwan must not let this kind of incident happen again, the DPP said in a statement, referring to China's rapprochement with Gambia, and was committed to consolidating diplomatic relations once it took power.
It also said it hoped China and Taiwan would not engage in "target competition," while the Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the Gambia move.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said its counterpart in Beijing, the Taiwan Affairs Office, had warned it earlier in the day the announcement was coming.
"We call on the mainland to face the reality that the Republic of China is a sovereign state and not carry out negative actions. Otherwise, it must take full responsibility for the possible consequences," the council said in a statement, referring to Taiwan's official name.
It added that the move would have a negative impact on cross-strait relations.
The news came while President Ma was on a visit to allies Guatemala and Belize. He told reporters in Belize on Thursday China's action was "highly inappropriate."
In a separate statement, China's Foreign Ministry did not directly address whether the decision on relations with Gambia was a warning to Tsai or marked the end of the truce.
"We uphold the one-China principle. The direction of promoting the peaceful development of cross-Taiwan Strait has not changed," it said.
Gambia had recognized mainland China from 1974 to 1995, before switching over to Taiwan.
China says Taiwan has no right to diplomatic recognition as it is part of China. Defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after the Chinese civil war.
Other countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan include the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, and Nicaragua.
China has also been quietly courting São Tomé and Príncipe, whose president made a low key visit to China in 2014.
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White)