Monday, May 30, 2016

The Gambia, or I am so naive, I still believe in a reality outside journalism

Local trick for using the Yoyo card/Easycard: keep it inside the cellphone case, and just swipe the phone....

The strange trifecta of Gambia, Kenya, and tourism in "punishing" Tsai has now become a Journalistic Fact: a claim widely shared among journalists, that is largely false. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about it is that it is a fact scrupulously honored by pro-Taiwan and pro-China writers. I wrote in The Diplomat a while ago:
The wide but erroneous evaluation of the affair of the Kenyan phone scammers as a move by Beijing to pressure Tsai Ing-wen simply shows how the frameworks the media uses to understand the China-Taiwan relationship conceal and distort the complexity of that relationship. They are easily hijacked by partisan commentators: in this case, pro-Taiwan commentators portraying it as a move against Tsai in order to heighten the sense of threat to the island nation, while their opponents used it to show how electing Tsai was a bad idea, since it angered China.
(Click on read more, it's a long one!)

For example, here is Jonathan Manthorpe, long sympathetic to Taiwan. After saying that Beijing cut tourists soon after her election (tourism from China rose in Feb but fell in March, tourism from HKK rose in Feb and March, YOY numbers are higher), he writes:
If Beijing’s tourist gambit misfired, another ploy did not. Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations with only 21 countries. Most nations have downgraded their diplomatic representation in Taipei as the price of having full bilateral relations with Beijing. Several small countries, however, found regularly switching diplomatic relations between Taiwan and China was a very profitable business. During his eight-years in office former Taiwan President Ma negotiated an unofficial end to this “dollar diplomacy.” But in March, the small African state of Gambia, which had previously recognized Taiwan, announced it was establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing. This move clearly came after pressure from China and is undoubtedly intended as a warning to Taipei that Beijing will step up its efforts to enforce Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

There was an even nastier example of Beijing’s vengeful nature in April, when Kenya was persuaded to force 45 Taiwanese on to planes to China. The 45 had been implicated in a fraudulent telemarketing scheme aimed at China. All were tried in Kenya and most acquitted. But China told the Nairobi government it wanted the Taiwanese, claiming they are Chinese citizens. Kenya herded the first batch of eight Taiwanese onto a China-bound plane on April 8. When another 28 Taiwanese, being held in jail, heard what had happened they barricaded themselves in their cells, Kenyan police stormed the prison and took the prisoners to the airport.
We already know that the deportation of the Kenya 45 to China had nothing to do with Tsai Ing-wen (here in the Diplomat). AFAIK Beijing never said that it insisted on having the Kenya 45 sent to China because they were "Chinese citizens". It wanted from -- it clearly and repeatedly stated for a year -- because they had committed crimes against Chinese. That correct interpretation has even made it into TIME. Oh well....

Manthorpe's summary of The Gambia situation is a bit misleading, though that is probably due to space. Gambia dumped Taiwan in 2013, dangling relations before Beijing, but Beijing said no until this March, three years later.

So the pro-Taiwan side, so the pro-China side. Here is the Economist with the same trifecta:
Since January, China has turned to its usual battery of economic, diplomatic and strong-arm methods to bring Ms Tsai into line. Tour operators report a sharp drop in the number of Chinese tourists. China has signalled an end to the “diplomatic truce” it had been observing by not competing with Taiwan for recognition from poor countries: in March it established ties with Taiwan’s former partner, the Gambia. It has also bullied Kenya into sending Taiwan citizens, detained on suspicion of fraud, to China. And, just before Ms Tsai’s swearing-in, it staged military exercises on the coast opposite Taiwan, as if rehearsing an invasion.
When two sides agree on non-facts, it's time to re-assess...

The Gambia thing has been making my spider sense tingle for the last two months, but I set it aside to let it simmer for a while. Many questions occurred to me...
  • If Gambia was aimed at Tsai, why have there not been more diplomatic poachings? Why did Beijing not unequivocally state it was aimed at Tsai?
  • Why March? Why not November? Or June? If Beijing wanted to signal that it did not like Tsai, why not do it before the election, when it might have an effect? Why did it not wait until after she was elected, if it wanted to send a message?
  • Why did Beijing wait over two years?
Gambia is run as a dictatorship by "The President of the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa". Last month Foreign Policy published a piece on Jammeh's regime, the worst dictator you've never heard of...
Since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994, Yahya Jammeh has presided over the worst dictatorship you’ve never heard of. The eccentric Gambian president, who performs ritual exorcisms and claims to heal everything from AIDS to infertility with herbal remedies, rules his tiny West African nation through a mix of superstition and fear. State-sanctioned torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary executions — these are just a few of the favored tactics employed by his notorious security and intelligence services.
The economy is a wreck and social tensions are at an all-time high. International aid has been withdrawn, and the dictator is desperate. As this piece notes:
Since coming to power in 1994 following a coup d'état, Jammeh's regime has been consistently accused of human rights violations, damaging its international image. This trend was aggravated in 2013 when Gambia left the Commonwealth, and then in 2015 when Jammeh threatened to withdraw Gambia from the African Union.

One of the regime's fiercest critics recently has been the European Union (EU), with Brussels blocking €20 million ($23 million) in aid in 2010 and €13 million ($15 million) in 2013. Then, soon after the expulsion of the EU's chargé d'affaires in June 2015, Brussels froze aid worth €150 million ($170 million).

This loss of revenue has been coupled with a 60% decline in tourism (which comprises 40% of GDP) in 2014 following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and Gambia's expulsion from the US preferential trade programme known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
Gambia is a mess...

Gambia broke with Taiwan in late 2013. Joel Atkinson, the longtime scholar of Taiwan's aid programs, wrote in The Diplomat at the time:
Many suspected that China had withdrawn the tacit “diplomatic truce” it had extended to Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou as a carrot for further progress towards unification. But China did not establish relations with Gambia, and it seems that China was not behind the move. Rather, it appears that Jammeh broke off relations with Taiwan after it would not provide more money. He either did this in a fit of pique or because he misunderstood the nature of the diplomatic truce and thought China would play along.
China was sincerely shocked and said that Jammeh had not contacted them. "We learned the news from foreign media reports," said the Foreign Ministry. Thus, the last of my questions is answered by Atkinson: Beijing was genuinely supporting Ma.

Atkinson notes that Ma was serious in his desire to make sure aid pennies were properly accounted for. It appears that the loss of Gambia was one of the casualties of Ma's insistence that aid programs be accountable. From one perspective, that looks noble, but the practical result is that it made many leaders long to switch sides -- which strikes me as Ma's real goal. Now that Tsai Ing-wen is in power, if Beijing starts switching, everyone will blame her, and not realize the ill will Ma has created with his approach.

The March 2016 decision to establish relations with Gambia was announced by Beijing with the usual boilerplate One China rhetoric (here in piece on opposition criticism of the dictator's decision to switch to Taiwan). A local piece gave the what's-in-it-for-us:
Gambia could make good use of this relationship to beef up most of the country’s socio-economic sectors and revamp especially areas where the economy is facing challenges.

Part of this effort could be, building and rehabilitating roads with double lanes, getting new ferries, constructing town halls in Banjul, KMC , Brikama, Farafenni and Basse, improving the energy sector, inviting Chinese doctors specialized in certain common diseases, sending Gambians to study and learn skills to assist in the field of agriculture, especially rice production, to attain food self-sufficiency.

We could also get bridges built in places such as Banjul-Barra, as well as get airlines in Gambia to cover the sub-region and other parts of the world.

Chinese investors can be encouraged to come to The Gambia and build factories to enable Gambian youths to work.
China had already been hard at work ramping up investments in Gambia (example). As soon as relations were re-established, China announced investments in the power sector.

This interview, post-re-establishment of relations with China, with Essa Bokarr Sey, the former ambassador of Gambia to Taiwan, the US and elsewhere, gives a different perspective on how China is involved in Africa....
I personally remember when China threatened to veto the deployment of a UN Peacekeeping force to Guinea-Bissau in 1999 simply because Guinea Bissau had established diplomatic relations with Taipei a couple of years before that. It is when the Gambian delegation spearheaded the formation of a group known as “Friends of Guinea-Bissau” at the UN Building. That group was geared towards influencing certain decisions at the level of the security council.
If you read the whole interview, and all the stuff on the internet about China and Gambia you will find that almost everyone read it as a strike at Tsai Ing-wen. Let me suggest another scenario.

In Dec of 2015 Jammeh declared Gambia to be an Islamic Republic (the population is 90% Muslim). Jammeh did this because he was desperate for cash, and Middle Eastern states are willing to give (from here):
Financial aid from the Middle East has already become more significant to the Gambia recently. According to an OECD report, the Gambia's five biggest contributors of development finance in 2013 included two new faces (compared to 2006) - the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Arab Bank for Economic Development (BADEA) - while other Middle Eastern-based donors have also been growing in influence.

BADEA provided Gambia with $119 million in financing up to June 2015, with secretary-general Sidi Ould Tah saying the institution wants to strengthen solidarity between the Arab world and Gambia. And, amongst others, there has been a growing role for the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), which now has the 111 projects in Gambia.

The government has also been deepening bilateral ties in the Middle East. In November 2014, Jammeh visited Qatar, which has donated funds to 243 humanitarian projects. Meanwhile, the president has also travelled to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and the UAE in the past few years.
In 2014 Saudi Arabia and Gambia signed a bilateral investment agreement and are now working on a taxation agreement (source). In 2010 Gambia broke ties with Iran, and Iran and Saudi Arabia are rivals. Gambia is also close to Turkey, which helps train its army and police (BBC). Kuwait also provides funds. BBC also observes that Gambia is isolated from its neighbors. Many of the reports on Gambia emphasize that the declaration of being Islamic Republic was intended to woo Iran as well as Saudi Arabia.

Al Jazeera notes that Beijing is worried about sectarian infighting in the Middle East, and that China sources ~50% of its oil from Iran and Saudi Arabia two rivals for influence in the region, and opponents across the great Sunni-Shiite divide of the Islamic world. The spread of Islamic militants across West Africa is also threatening to engulf Gambia, which as BBC observed above, is filled with unemployed youth ripe for such evangelism. Xinjiang is already a hotbed of anti-Beijing terrorism and militant groups across the Middle East already recruit there. Those groups have West African links as well.

A Newsweek piece last year made the connection, linking Xinjiang with Chinese interest in the Middle East and West Africa:
Africa has been beset by violence from militant groups based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, including the Nigerian group Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia and also active in Kenya. However, according to Brautigam, the Chinese have their own problem with militancy in the restive Xinjiang region in the far west of the country.

Xinjiang has a significant population of Uighurs—an ethnic group that are largely Muslim—who have protested in recent years at perceived discrimination from Beijing. Beijing has described violence in the region as being the work of “terrorists,” with government officials claiming that some Uighurs have gone to fight with radical groups in the Middle East.

According to Brautigam, China is keen to link up African and Western concerns about groups such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with their own troubles in Xinjiang. “They also don’t want Al-Qaeda or ISIS or Boko Haram-type terrorism to reach China,” she says. “Right now they really haven’t, but that will be on their mind.”

China has also deployed hundreds of troops to South Sudan over the course of 2015, emphasizing its commitment to maintaining African stability.
This 2013 piece on China and Africa by David Shinn also makes the same connection, with many details on China's security activities in Africa.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are Sunni-Shiite rivals for influence in Africa, especially West and North Africa where Islam is prevalent (BBC report). The BBC report says that Sudan -- where China has troops -- has moved into the Saudi camp, and Sudanese troops are serving in its war on Yemen.

China has publicly warned that the break between Iran and Saudi Arabia could well lead to further terrorism. Riyadh and Tehran are, as noted above, major oil exporters to China -- and Saudi Arabia is a major backer of Sunni terrorist groups. Xinjiang's Muslims are largely Sunni. China has a deep interest in West and North African terrorist organizations because of its burgeoning involvement in Africa and because of the globe-spanning linkages of Islamic terrorism.

Do the math.

It may seem strange, but Beijing might not have been considering Taiwan at all in its move -- or rather, identified the snub to Taiwan as a nice bit of fallout, but not its main consideration. Its main consideration may well have been to counter the rising influence of Islamic money, particularly Saudi money in West Africa and in Gambia, and perhaps too because of the possible linkages between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gambia.

There isn't enough evidence to really identify exactly what Beijing's motives were in resuming relations with Gambia, but it is interesting that it did so a few months after Gambia was declared an Islamic Republic and began urgently wooing Middle Eastern Islamic money.

If Beijing wanted to signal Tsai, why didn't it pick up Gambia in the fall when it could have influenced the election, or after she was elected, to make it clear? Instead it did it when its ally Ma was a lame duck president. It's a reminder of the media double standard on the KMT and the DPP -- negative actions by Beijing are never negative signals to the KMT, only to the DPP.

The timing of the event doesn't fit the scenario that Zhongnanhai is warning Tsai. It better fits Jammeh's sudden yearning for cash from the Middle East and in particular, Saudi Arabia.

Whatever you may say about the alternative scenario I've offered here, there is no firm evidence whatsoever that Beijing's resumption of relations with Gambia was a strike at Tsai Ing-wen. That remains an interpretion -- widespread, to be sure -- but Beijing has never formally stated it was aimed at Tsai. Ask yourself -- did observers arrive at that conclusion because they based it on available evidence, or because they have a pre-existing framework for thinking about China-Taiwan affairs that says everything that happens involving China and Taiwan must somehow be fit into the Cross-Strait sovereignty dispute?

We both know the answer to that question.
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