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Tuesday, December 30, 1997 Published at 16:17 GMT

World: Analysis

Taiwan loses a major ally

China and South Africa have signed an agreement establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. The move will mean the severance of diplomatic ties between South Africa and Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as a rebel province and does not allow countries that have diplomatic ties with Beijing to have official dealings with Taipei. Our Chinese affairs analyst, James Miles, says this will be a major diplomatic setback for Taiwan:

It is just over a year since the South African President, Nelson Mandela, stunned Taiwan by announcing that Pretoria would establish diplomatic ties with the island's rival, mainland China, at the end of 1997.

China does not allow simultaneous recognition of its government and that of Taiwan, so President Mandela also gave Taiwan notice that South Africa would be cutting its official links with Taipei.

This was a shock to some in Taiwan because President Mandela himself had earlier assured the island that severing ties with a country that had given him help would be immoral.

Although Taiwan had supported the apartheid regime, since the late 1980s the island had backed the bid for power by Mandela's African National Congress.

The shock for Taiwan was worsened by the fact that South Africa was the most influential of the mere 30 countries that officially recognised the island.

Ties with South Africa may not have helped Taiwan's cause much during the apartheid years when Pretoria was shunned by many world powers. But having ties with Mandela's South Africa was a major feather in Taiwan's otherwise little adorned diplomatic cap.

But mainland China too had claims on Mandela's loyalty.

Beijing had long vigorously denounced apartheid and supported the ANC. It also had other cards to play - a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a fast growing economy to which it restricted access by those friendly with Taiwan.

President Mandela diplomatically refrained from commenting on China's human rights record - to the irritation of some commentators in Taiwan who felt that as emerging democracies Taipei and Pretoria should stick together.

But he also tried to soften the blow to Taiwan by referring very undiplomatically to "two Chinas" - a concept that is heresy to Beijing but close to Taiwan's way of thinking.

The handover of Hong Kong to China at the end of June may have encouraged Mandela to make his decision.

Pretoria has considerable economic links with the territory. Until the handover, it also had a consulate there by virtue of its diplomatic ties with Britain.

China would only allow Pretoria to re-open its Hong Kong consulate if it officially recognised Beijing.

Many in Taiwan, however, had long seen the loss of ties with South Africa as inevitable. And important though relations with Pretoria have been to Taipei, they were less so than ties with other major countries that have dropped Taiwan in favour of China: South Korea in 1992 and most importantly of all, the United States in 1979.

Now, apart from the Vatican, those that recognise Taiwan are mostly small Latin American and African countries.

But although Beijing's policy of isolating the island diplomatically is achieving some success, Taipei is still fighting back - using its economic clout to strengthen ties with the financially crippled countries of south-east Asia and sending its top officials abroad for low profile, unofficial visits in defiance of Beijing's objections.

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