China Revives Ties With African Nation in Blow to Taiwan

  • Sao Tome and Principe cut relations with Taiwan last week
  • Move shows Taiwan’s risk of isolation amid China tensions

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, shakes hands with his Sao Tome counterpart Urbino Botelho after signing an agreement in Beijing on Dec. 26, 2016.

Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

China re-established diplomatic ties with Sao Tome and Principe, cementing the small West African island nation’s shift in allegiance from Taiwan.

The two countries signed a communique Monday at a ceremony in Beijing attended by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

The switch highlights Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s growing risk of isolation amid tensions with China. It cuts to 21 the number of nations that recognize the government in Taipei, rather than Beijing.

China has shown a willingness to use its economic and military might to pressure Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which swept the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang from power in January. The Communist Party considers the self-governed island a province and has criticized Tsai’s refusal to accept that both sides belong to “One China,” its precondition for ties. China accounts for around 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports.

Wang told reporters in Beijing that China welcomed Sao Tome and Principe’s decision, saying it was made under the One China principle.

"This relationship could bring solid results to both nations," Wang said. "The two sides will start cooperation in all areas based on the principle of mutual trust. China is willing to provide support to the economical and social development of Sao Tome and Principe within its capacity."

Sao Tome and Principe, with a population of about 197,500, consists of two archipelagos that lie within 200 miles (320 kilometers) off the northwestern coast of Gabon. It established ties with China in 1975 only to switch to Taiwan in 1997.

"We hope more and more Chinese interests will invest in Sao Tome and Africa," Urbino Botelho, Director da Politica Externa of Sao Tome and Principe, said at the Beijing briefing. "We hope more Chinese tourists will come visit."

‘Most Correct’

Sao Tome and Principe had sought more than $100 million from the government in Taipei, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported last week, citing an unidentified foreign ministry official.

Sao Tome and Principe Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada said on Thursday that breaking relations with Taiwan “was the most correct decision” because “we have a commitment to the people to improve their living conditions,” according to Taiwan’s United Daily News. Trovoada also denied that he had approached Taiwan for money.

In March, Beijing formally reestablished relations with Gambia -- another former Taiwanese partner in West Africa -- and has stepped up communications with others, such as Panama and the Vatican. China had refrained from actively wooing away any of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners during the eight-year tenure of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, who advocated increased ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

Tsai visited Panama and Paraguay two months after taking office and plans a similar Central American tour next month, including Guatemala and Honduras. That could provide an opportunity for a transit stop in the U.S., where the incoming president, Donald Trump, has expressed a willingness to reconsider long-standing U.S. policy toward China.

Trump’s recent protocol-breaking phone call with Tsai and his attacks on China on Twitter, have sparked friction between the world’s two biggest economies before he takes office. After the call, China flew a bomber around Taiwan in what it called a normal flight operation.

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and David Ramli

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