Taipei — The Republic of the Gambia, a small nation in West Africa, has broken off diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It is the first country to do so since 2008. The move marks a worrying development for diplomatically isolated Taiwan, which has long struggled to forge such relationships because of opposition from China.
The break comes despite relations marked by frequent high-level contact and Taipei's help in a variety of areas, ranging from farming to military training.
Taiwan Foreign Ministry Political Deputy Minister Simon Ko told a news conference his government regrets The Gambia's decision, but declined to speculate on the impact.
Ko expressed the Taiwan government's shock and regret at The Gambia's decision to break ties effective immediately, and added that the two sides had worked closely together over the past 18 years. Ko noted that it appears, at least so far, that the split is a result of a personal decision by Gambian President Yahya Jammeh.
The Gambia's ambassador to Taiwan declined to speak to reporters.
Since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, China has viewed Taiwan as part of its territory. Beijing refuses diplomatic relations with any nation that formally recognizes Taiwan.
Before Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office, China and Taiwan jockeyed for allies by offering countries money to switch allegiances. However, five years ago, Taipei and Beijing struck an agreement to stop the practice.
Since then, the two Asian neighbors have been working to ease tension and build trust. Beijing has sought to win over the Taiwanese public through deals aimed at boosting the island's economy.
Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University, in Taipei, thinks it's too early to tell why The Gambia cut ties, but fears a dangerous shift may be underway.
"We can't say anything for now, because we have no direct proof it was done by the PRC [mainland China]. So I think it might be a paradigm change. We need to be very alert about it," cautioned Huang.
Taipei's remaining 22 allies are mostly poor nations in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific. A breakdown of the diplomatic truce with China could see more countries switch their allegiance, which would likely threaten the newly created trade and investment links between Beijing and Taipei.