TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan needs to protect its international space as its diplomatic position is precarious, president-elect Tsai Ing-wen said on Friday after China resumed ties with former Taiwan ally Gambia and anger over the move grew in the self-ruled island.
The small West African state was one of only 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 have 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.
That truce is now over, following January’s landslide election of Tsai and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). China has repeatedly warned her against any moves towards independence.
In comments released via a spokesman, Tsai said China and Taiwan did not need to do anything to harm each other’s feelings.
“(I) hope the establishment of ties with Gambia is not a targeted move,” Tsai said.
“At present, Taiwan’s diplomatic situation is not optimistic, and needs everyone to unite together to face up to it, to consistently protect our international space.”
Senior Taiwan lawmakers lined up to criticize China, including from the China-friendly Nationalist Party.
“It has seriously hurt the feelings of the Taiwan people,” said Nationalist lawmaker Chiang Chi-chen, a member of parliament’s defense and foreign affairs committee.
DPP lawmaker Lo Chih-cheng said Tsai had pledged to maintain the status quo with China and that she would not take provocative action.
“But very regretful, before her inauguration, China with its unilateral action has changed the status quo across the Taiwan Strait,” Lo said.
Asked if China had dangled any financial incentives in front of Gambia, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Gambia had not bought up “any pre-conditions”.
While Gambia severed relations with Taiwan in November 2013, causing anger in Taipei, China had held off establishing formal ties with it until now.
Influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said it did not believe the decision represented a collapse of the diplomatic truce, but accused Taiwan of “making trouble”.
“DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen should act more positively to address the growing uncertainties,” it said in an editorial.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office first informed its counterpart on the island, the Mainland Affairs Council, of the pending announcement via a mobile phone text message, said Aileen Hu, director of policy planning at the council.
But China told Taiwan its top official in charge of Taiwan ties, Zhang Zhijun, was not in so they could not use the ministerial-level hotline both sides have used three times already this year, she added.
“We felt this was an issue of a major emergency fulfilling the need to use the hotline,” Hu told reporters.
The Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Gambia had recognized China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China, from 1974 to 1995, before switching to Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China.
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.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel