HONG KONG — Before this week, few Chinese citizens had probably heard of São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation off the west coast of Africa. But the country has risen into their good graces after deciding to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a self-governing island that China regards as a breakaway province.
The decision, announced by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday, reduces the number of countries that have formal relations with Taiwan to 21. It comes after Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in May, shattered diplomatic protocol in early December and startled Beijing by speaking with the U.S. president-elect, Donald J. Trump.
“China appreciates and welcomes São Tomé and Príncipe’s return to the right track of the one-China principle,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a news briefing Wednesday.
Beijing has long refused to have diplomatic relations with any country that does not recognize it as China’s sole government. Taiwan, where the defeated Chinese Nationalist forces retreated after the civil war in 1949, is formally known as the Republic of China. For decades, Beijing and Taipei competed for recognition as the country named “China,” but in 1979, the United States switched its support and formally supported diplomatic relations with Beijing, and most countries have since done the same.
Analysts said São Tomé and Príncipe could be just the first diplomatic defection by a small country eager to establish formal relations with Beijing instead of Taipei, as China is increasingly seen as the richer benefactor.
“I think it might trigger a domino effect,” Richard W.X. Hu, a professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said in an email Thursday. He added that Beijing was “increasingly determined to squeeze Taipei’s international space” in response to the election of Tsai, whose Democratic Progressive Party has traditionally favored independence for Taiwan.
At a news briefing in Taipei on Wednesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, David Lee, declined to provide details of how São Tomé and Príncipe, a former Portuguese colony with a population of less than 200,000, had arrived at its decision to sever diplomatic ties. Hua, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, did not say when the African country would formally establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Reports in Taiwan’s news media suggested that São Tomé and Príncipe’s decision had come from Taipei’s refusal to agree to a request for financial support. Taiwan’s state-run Central News Agency quoted an unnamed official at the Foreign Ministry as saying that São Tomé and Príncipe had sought $200 million from Taipei as part of what the agency’s report called “checkbook diplomacy.”
But Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said São Tomé’s decision to switch diplomatic allegiance had probably been orchestrated by Beijing and had broader political overtones.
“It looks like something inconsequential, but actually it means a lot for cross-strait relations,” Zhang said, referring to the body of water that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. “Basically, it means Beijing has a new Taiwan strategy: They’re going back to their confrontational style, and the truce with Taiwan over the past eight years is over.”
Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, had promoted closer ties with China.
Zhang said that before Tsai took office, Beijing had reportedly denied requests by several African and Latin American countries to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beijing instead of Taipei. The purpose at the time, he said, was to reward Ma for his role in stabilizing relations between China and Taiwan and to help him avoid “embarrassing” diplomatic episodes that could damage his domestic political capital.
Zhang added that the move by São Tomé and Príncipe could be read as “part of China’s punishment of Tsai for calling Trump.”
When Trump answered a congratulatory telephone call from Tsai this month, he became the first U.S. president or president-elect to speak to a Taiwanese leader since at least 1979. Trump later said that he viewed the “One China'’ policy that has informed relations between Washington and Beijing since the 1970s as ripe for review, and Beijing responded by blaming Tsai’s government for arranging the call.
On Thursday, Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, said that São Tomé and Príncipe’s decision was merely a beginning and that Taiwan could lose all of its diplomatic partners if the Democratic Progressive Party “continues to pursue Taiwan independence.”
On Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, people welcomed the African country into the Chinese fold, even as some conceded that their grasp of its geography was hazy.
“We should work harder to get the rest of those 21 countries,” one person posted. “Then Taiwan would be truly ‘independent.'”