Gambia breaks off diplomatic ties with Taiwan

BANJUL, November 15, 2013 (AFP) -- Gambia said Thursday it had broken off diplomatic relations with Taiwan after 18 years, citing the "national interest".

President Yahya Jammeh's announcement makes Gambia the first country to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan since President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008 on a China-friendly platform.

"This decision has been taken in our strategic national interest," said a statement from Jammeh's office.

"Despite the end of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, we will still remain friends with the people of Taiwan."

Gambia was one of only a handful of African countries to retain ties with Taiwan at a time when China is pumping billions of dollars into the continent.

Simon Ko, Taiwan's vice foreign minister, told a news conference Taipei felt "shock and regret" at the move, which means it is now recognised by just 22 countries, mostly developing states.

Beijing regards Taiwan, which split from mainland China in 1949 at the end of a civil war, as part of its territory.

It has in recent years convinced several countries that had sided with Taiwan in 1949 to switch their support.

However, it was not immediately clear whether Gambia's move was linked to the development of relations with China, which has a growing influence in Africa.

Initially, a majority of African states recognised the Taipei government, which responded with investment.

But their number has steadily eroded. Gambia's decision means that Swaziland, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso are the only African countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan has poured millions of dollars into the health, education, agriculture and infrastructure sectors of resource-poor Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland.

It funded the $22 million (18 million euro) construction of a 42 kilometre (26 mile) road linking the western part of the country to the capital Banjul, and President Ma had visited Gambia in 2012.

In 2010 President Jammeh said Taiwan was "one of the best friends that the Gambia has ever had", pledging to "give them all the necessary support to make sure that they gain their rightful position in this world".

Although China still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, relations have warmed since Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang party came to power in Taipei in 2008 on a platform of strengthening trade and tourism links.