By Pap Saine and Michael Gold
BANJUL/TAIPEI (Reuters) - Gambia's government will cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan with immediate effect, President Yahya Jammeh's office said, a move which could threaten warming ties between China and Taiwan, though China expressed little interest in extending recognition.
The small West African state was one of a few African countries, along with Burkina Faso and Swaziland, to recognise self-ruled Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province to be recovered by force if necessary.
"This decision has been taken in our strategic national interest," the president's office said in a statement on Thursday.
"We are proud that we have been a very strong and reliable partner of the ROC (Republic of China, or Taiwan) for the past 18 years, the results of which are there for every Taiwanese to see,"
It said Gambia and Taiwan would remain friends, but Taipei expressed shock at the announcement.
"The Taiwan government expresses shock and regret toward this decision," Deputy Foreign Minister Simon Ko told reporters on Friday.
Wang Chien-yeh, head of the ministry's Department of West Asian and African Affairs, added that Taiwan had officially "suspended" its relations with Gambia, not terminated them.
China's Foreign Ministry said it had had no contact with authorities in Gambia and declined to say if it had now established formal ties with the west African state.
"We ... learned about this from the foreign media. China has had no contact with Gambia ahead of this," spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
China says Taiwan has no right to diplomatic recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communists won China's civil war in 1949. The Nationalists fled across a 180-km (110-mile)-wide strait to Taiwan.
Other countries enjoying diplomatic ties with Taiwan include the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua and Belize.
"The rest of Taiwan's diplomatic allies will be watching," said Cheng-Yi Lin, a research fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.
The two sides have engaged in an unofficial diplomatic truce since signing a series of landmark trade and economic agreements in 2008, as China tries to convince Taiwan of its friendly intentions after decades of hostility and suspicion.
Zhang Zhexin, who studies Taiwan policy at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Beijing would deal with the issue in a low-key way to avoid upsetting Taiwan.
"We won't take the initiative to spread this news around," he said. "This has nothing to do with cross-strait ties. Gambia has its own development needs."
Gambia is the second African state to announce a change in its diplomatic relationship with China this week.
Officials in the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe said on Tuesday that China planned to open a trade mission to promote projects there.
That decision comes 16 years after China severed relations over the central African nation's recognition of Taiwan. Sao Tome officials did not say whether the new cooperation deal with Beijing would affect diplomatic ties with Taiwan.