The African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe cut off ties with Taiwan this week, in a decision that drew kudos from China and anger from the foreign ministry of Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.
In a statement, the Taiwanese foreign ministry condemned Sao Tome and Principe’s “abrupt and unfriendly decision,” while the Foreign Minister David Lee accused it of demanding “an astronomical amount of financial help” in exchange for continued formal recognition of Taiwan’s independence, according to the Associated Press.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, would not tell the newswire whether China had made a financial commitment to Sao Tome and Principe, a former Portuguese colony of roughly 200,000 people where foreign aid was the source of about 90 percent of the national budget, as of 2013, according to Foreign Affairs.
But Chinese authorities have in the past acknowledged that Sao Tome was high on the list of countries from which China would seek a break in protocol toward Taiwan, and it has pursued an informal tightening of business ties in recent years.
The move may highlight how China’s growing economic clout has given it extra leverage in its ongoing efforts to isolate Taiwan, which is formally recognized by just 21 countries. And China observers say it could reflect new determination from China on that front, in the weeks following President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to receive a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen.
That simple phone call, reported The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi, seemed to challenge a cornerstone of US-China relations – the “one China policy”, considered by China a nonnegotiable matter of sovereignty. The two leaders' chat was the first time a US president or president-elect has directly spoken to a Taiwanese leader since 1979, after the US established full relations with the People's Republic of China, although the US sells defensive weaponry to Taiwan.
“I fully understand the ‘one China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade,” Trump told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace.
The controversy may highlight central tactic of the next president's approach to diplomacy, as the Monitor reported: "Find a country's point of highest pressure, and use it to extract more favorable conditions for the US:"
But China – which issued a calm but stern response Monday to Trump’s latest Taiwan pronouncements – is putting the president-elect on notice regarding its very different view: that placing a country’s core interests on the bargaining table is simply a recipe for rocky relations – or perhaps worse. ...
More broadly, the Chinese appear to be sending signals of their own, suggesting that Trump will face stiff global resistance if he attempts to open every issue to economic deal-making.
In a statement to Portuguese news service Lusa, Sao Tome’s government cited the “increasingly fierce defense of national interests” by other countries for its decision, as well as its own development goals. Located in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, the island is touted as potential producer of petroleum, although its current exports are limited to cocoa.
"We think the Beijing government should not use Sao Tome's financing black hole ... as an opportunity to push its 'one China' principle," Mr. Lee said in Taipei on Wednesday, according to Reuters.
"This behavior is not helpful to a smooth cross-Strait relationship."
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.