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Taiwan in Africa: The Last Ally and the Lost Allies

  Anu Maria Joseph

From 5 September to 8 September, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made a four-day visit to Eswatini, Taiwan’s sole diplomatic ally in Africa. The visit marked the 55 years of their bilateral relations since Eswatini gained independence in 1968. Ahead of the visit, President Tsai stated: We “celebrate the friendship between the two countries and promote sustainable co-operation; Eswatini has always stood up to firmly support Taiwan, giving us confidence and strength.”

During the visit, the Taiwanese delegation signed three cooperation deals, including a sister-city relationship between Kaohsiung and Eswatini’s capital Mbabane. Additionally, Taiwan committed to providing support for 5,000 female entrepreneurs. Further, President Tsai emphasised Taiwan’s “Africa Plan” to expand its African allies. Tsai stated: “We will revise the “Africa plan” when we return. If I’m unable to finish the task, I will pass it along to the next president. Maybe we can even manage it so that the next time a Taiwan president comes, he’ll not only be able to visit Eswatini but other places as well.”

The “One China” policy restricts Taiwan from any right to state-to-state relations. Taiwan has formal ties with only 13 countries and with one African country. China is increasingly pressuring these countries to avoid what it describes as “such immoral and abnormal relations.” 

Taiwan's historical ties with Africa
Since the Chinese civil war between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, which ended in 1949, Taiwan-Africa relations have been unstable. Three events that converged began to define the African continent’s relations with China and Taiwan. First, decolonisation in Africa in the 1960s. Second, for the PRC, under the leadership of Mao Zedong building relations with decolonised Africa was a way to grow its political impact. Third, for Taiwan, its democratic commonalities and bid to keep away the continent from Chinese communist ideologies were the priority. 

During the 1960s, Taiwan-Africa relations focused on the agricultural sector. It included assisting African farmers with agricultural aid, knowledge and technology sharing, and large-scale training programmes. At the time, Taiwan easily outpaced China in its diplomatic ties with African countries. However, the relations frayed with Taiwan’s ejection and China’s entry at the UN in 1971. 27 African countries voted for the UN resolution denying Taiwan’s membership and 12 African countries supported Taiwan along with the US.

During the 1990s, Taiwan’s relations with African countries focused on its objective of international recognition. It increased investments in return for diplomatic ties. In 1992, Niger recognised Taiwan’s statehood in turn for USD 50 million; in 1995, it lent USD 35 million to Gambia for a similar objective. However, since 2000, with China expanding its footprints through massive infrastructure investments, Taiwan has lost its loyal allies in the continent. 

Four reasons why Taiwan lost its ties in Africa
Four reasons have been identified behind Taiwan losing its allies in Africa.

1. Taiwan’s ejection from the UN 
Following the passage of UN Resolution 2758 and its ejection from the UN, Taiwan lost its membership to major financial organizations, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, by the 1980s. Several countries recognised China and it doubled after the US recognised China in 1979. Taiwan, which had diplomatic relations with almost 30 African countries, lost nearly 22 of its allies by the end of the 70s. 

2. Taiwan’s leadership under DPP
Until 2016, under Ma Ying-Jeou and his Kuomintang Party (KMT), Taiwan had a China-friendly approach with a policy of “flexible diplomacy.” It sought to deepen trust with Beijing with a cross–Strait rapprochement in the international community and a lull in the ROC-PRC rift for diplomatic recognition. The diplomacy brought Taiwan back several informal allies between 2008 and 2016, including a few African countries of Gambia and South Africa. However, when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power under Tsai Ing-wen, the new government criticised the “flexible diplomacy” as imbalanced. With increased China-Taiwan tensions, Taiwan lost eight of its African allies, including Liberia, Senegal, Chad, Malawi, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso, by 2020. 

3. The rise of China
The rise of China since the 2000s with its “go out and buy” policy lit up its scramble into Africa. By the 2020s, China became Africa’s largest trading partner, expanding its footprints in the sectors of trade and investment, infrastructure, power, transport, port and aviation, and finance and aid. Currently, China has diplomatic ties with 53 African countries except Eswatini. It is involved in infrastructure projects in almost 40 African countries with which it has lured diplomatic ties. Its economic might to expand its influence in the continent became a tactic to shift African countries’ formal ties from Taiwan. Besides, China has been pressuring African countries through threats to cut ties with Taiwan. In February 2020, the then Chinese ambassador to South Africa, Lin Song-tian, stated: “No diplomatic relations, no more business benefits.” Similarly, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Li-jian, reacted to Somaliland’s ties with Taiwan, saying that those who challenge the “One China” principle’ “will get burned and swallow the bitter fruit.” Further, African countries have recognised China as opposed to Taiwan through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) platform. 

4. Africa’s option 
For Africa, siding with China is pragmatic and driven purely by economic interests. Relations with China, the world's second-largest economy, is seen as an alternative to its former colonial powers in the West. Additionally, China’s approach without any pre-conditions, political sides, and democratic accountability is perceived as profitable in the majority of African countries; at all costs a better option than Taiwan. 

Eswatini: Taiwan's last ally
Taiwan-Eswatini relations date back to 1968 when it gained independence from Britain. Their relations expanded in the sectors of healthcare, agriculture, loans, vocational training for entrepreneurs, education, and COVID-19 relief efforts. A major reason for Eswatini to continue its relations with Taiwan despite the Chinese push is Taiwan’s development assistance to the country. Although Taiwan backs infrastructure development and provides aid for healthcare and education, it has also been accused of providing slush funds for Eswatini’s elites, widely criticised as Taiwan’s “dollar diplomacy” in Eswatini. The country is ranked as Taiwan’s 149th trading partner, with a trade share below one per cent. In 2018, trade between the two countries increased by 40 per cent reaching over USD ten million.

Mswati III being the last remaining absolute monarch in the world, chose to continue its relations with Taiwan over financial contributions including royal jet (Fabricus, 2018) and personal services to the monarch and its family. The king has been a regular visitor to Taipei; with eighteen trips to date. Most recently, Eswatini Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini visited Taiwan in March this year. 

Cooperation with such autocratic regimes is significant for Taiwan to avoid being taken over by China.

Taiwan’s relations with China are more unpleasant than they have been before and the possibility for international recognition is unlikely. The rise of China with its vast footprints in Africa has limited Taiwan’s options for its “Africa Plan.”

The contradiction between Eswatini’s autocracy and Taiwan’s democracy, along with the Chinese push luring African ties, implies a long-term Eswatini-Taiwan relations are uncertain. In March, Taiwan came under scrutiny in a debt trap discourse over the loans given by the Taiwanese Exim Bank for the construction of the International Convention Centre and Five Star Hotel (Fish). Although Eswatini had denied committing public assets as collateral, the narrative has become an opening for China. 

At this juncture, the visit is an effort by Taiwan not to lose its last ally in Africa; the ‘sister city agreement’ is a tool to ensure the longevity of the partnership to change the narrative of “dollar diplomacy.” 

About the author

Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

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