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NIAS Africa Weekly #80 | Taiwan in Africa: The Last Ally and the Lost Allies

  NIAS Africa Team

Africa Weekly
#79, Vol. 2, No. 34

Taiwan in Africa: The Last Ally and the Lost Allies 
by 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.” 

13 September-19 September
Anu Maria Joseph

Hundreds protested against the flood management
On 19 September, hundreds of residents in Libya’s city of Derna protested against the authorities for their failure to deal with the floods that killed thousands in the city. The protesters criticised the leader of eastern Libya's parliament, Aguila Saleh, and city authorities’ mismanagement in disaster warning and evacuation operations. The protesters also set alight the house of Derna’s mayor, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi. According to the Red Crescent, at least 11,000 people have died and 20,000 others are missing, following the torrential rains caused by storm Daniel and the devastating floods that followed. (“Hundreds protest in flood-hit eastern Libya,” BBC, 19 September 2023)

Floods updates
On 14 September, the Red Crescent reported that around 11,000 people had died and 20,000 others were missing in the devastating floods in Libya. Thousands have been displaced after two dams burst due to pressure from the storm Daniel’s intense rainfall. Meanwhile, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization commented that several human casualties could have been avoided if authorities had issued warnings as carried out evacuations. Besides, while the rescue operations and reach of aid are underway, the UN has warned of an outbreak of several diseases due to the contaminated water. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced USD two million for emergency efforts. (“What's the latest?,” BBC, 14 September 2023)

Devastating floods kill more than 11,000
On 13 September, the United Nations described the deadly floods in Libya as a “calamity of epic proportions.” According to the UN, more than 11,000 people have died and more than 10,000 are missing. As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly 1.8 million people have been affected by the torrential rains that hit several cities in the country. The city of Derna has been severely affected by Storm Daniel and the floods. Meanwhile, the prime minister of the country’s internationally recognised government, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who operates from the capital Tripoli, in the west of the country, stated: “There were multiple offers of help and we will only accept aid that is necessary.” The worst-hit city of Derna is located in eastern Libya, governed by a rival government. Rescue efforts have been hampered by the political rift. (“Have political divisions slowed aid response to floods?,” BBC, 13 September; “Flood-hit Libyan city living through 'doomsday',” BBC, 13 September; “Libya floods a disaster of epic proportions - UN,” BBC, 13 September)

UN envoy resigns; warns of civil war
On 14 September, the UN envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, announced his resignation after informing the UN Security Council that the conflict in Sudan is at risk of becoming a full-blown civil war. The resignation comes after Sudan declared him unwelcome in the country the previous month. Perthes criticised the warring parties- SAF leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader General Mohamed Dagalo- for carrying out human rights abuses across the country. He also blamed SAF for its air strikes in civilian areas. According to the UN, more than five million people have been displaced following the fighting in Sudan that erupted in April. (“UN's Sudan envoy resigns, warns of full civil war,” BBC, 14 September 2023)

RSF threatens to establish a parallel government in Khartoum
On 15 September, the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) announced that it aims to form another government with Khartoum as its capital. The move came in response to the Sudanese military-led government announcing its plans to build a presidential palace and foreign ministry’s headquarters in Port Sudan. RSF leader Hamdan Dagalo tweeted that the RSF had shown “great patience regarding al-Burhan's individual decisions despite his illegitimacy.” ("Sudan's RSF leader threatens to form own government," BBC, 15 September 2023)

Fighting spreads to Port Sudan
On 19 September, BBC Africa reported on the spread of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the city of Port Sudan. SAF clashed with members of a tribal militia group, the Forces of the Eastern Sudan Parties and Movements Alliance. The clashes erupted when the SAF tried to remove checkpoints set up by the groups in the city. The fighting comes after the Sudanese military government announced that it would build a presidential palace and relocate its foreign ministry to the city of Port Sudan. In response, RSF has announced that they will establish a parallel government in the capital Khartoum. (“First clashes reported in Port Sudan since the war began,” BBC, 19 September 2023)

200 anti-government Eritreans arrested in Germany over clashes
On 17 September, more than 200 opponents of the Eritrean government were arrested after clashes with the police in the city of Stuttgart in Germany. The clashes erupted during an Eritrean cultural festival marking 30 years of independence which was organised by the supporters loyal to the Eritrean regime. Police reported that they were sent to contain “massive violence” between the opposing groups. Previously this month, a similar violence occurred in the city of Tel Aviv in Israel, after which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to deport Eritrean asylum seekers in the country.  (“Hundreds of Eritrean opposition supporters arrested in Stuttgart,” BBC, 17 September 2023)

Continuing human rights abuses in Tigray, reports the UN
On 18 September, the UN Human Rights Council released a report titled “Report of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia.” According to the report, war crimes and crimes against humanity are committed by all warring parties in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, even after the peace deal signed in November 2022 between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian federal forces. Chair of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, Mohamed Chande Othman, stated alongside the release of the report: “While the signing of the agreement may have mostly silenced the guns, it has not resolved the conflict in the north of the country, in particular in Tigray, nor has it brought about any comprehensive peace.” The report claimed that TPLF, federal forces, Eritrean forces, and their respective regional allied militias are carrying out human rights abuses including sexual violence in the region. All the parties had previously denied similar accusations. (“Crimes against humanity continue in Ethiopia despite the truce, say UN experts,” Al Jazeera, 19 September 2023)

President Hakainde Hichilema meets Chinese President Xi Jinping
On 15 September, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for bilateral talks. The two leaders agreed upon a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.” President Xi stated that their friendship had “withstood the test of international storms and changes,” encouraging more imports from Zambia. China plays a major role in Zambia’s mining sector and Zambia seeks to restructure its external debt with its leading creditor, China. (“Zambia to upgrade ties with the biggest creditor China,” BBC, 15 September 2023)

At least 17 killed in landslides
On 18 September, at least 17 people were killed in a landslide in the northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo caused by torrential rains. The disaster occurred in the town of Lisal in Mongala province near the Congo River. Governor Cesar Limbaya Mbangisa expressed condolences to the families of the victims. (“Landslide in northwest DR Congo kills at least 17 people,” Al Jazeera, 18 September 2023)

Re-emerging Tuareg rebellion
On 18 September, BBC Africa reported on the claims of Tuareg rebels from northern Mali on seizing control of two army bases. BBC quoted a Malian official informing AFP news agency regarding fighting that happened in the town of Léré in the Timbuktu region on 17 September. An alliance of Tuareg group, Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), re-launched a rebellion in August following the expulsion of the UN peacekeepers from the country. The peace deal between Tuareg separatists in 2015 has floundered since the coup in 2020. An unrecognised spokesman for CMA stated: “We attacked and took control of the two military camps in the town of Léré this Sunday.” The renewed rebellion comes weeks after al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group, Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), declared “war in the Timbuktu region.” (“Tuareg rebels claim to have captured Mali army bases,” BBC, 18 September 2023)

US troops resume operations
On 14 September, Al Jazeera reported that the US military has resumed its operations in Niger, flying drones and aircraft in their airbase in Niger after a temporary halt amid the coup. General James Hecker stated: “Through the diplomatic process, we are now doing, I wouldn’t say 100 per cent of the missions that we were doing before, but we’re doing a large number of missions that we’re doing before.” Nearly 1,100 US soldiers are deployed in the country. The previous week, the Pentagon had announced that US forces shifted from Air Base 101 near the capital Niamey to Air Base 201 in Agadez. Niger is a primary regional outpost for the US military which leads operations against rebel and Islamist insurgent groups. (“US military resumes drone, crewed aircraft operations in post-coup Niger,” Al Jazeera, 14 September)

President Macron claims French ambassador held hostage
On 15 September, French President Emmanuel Macron commented that France’s envoy to Niger is living like a hostage in the French embassy. Macron stated: “As we speak, we have an ambassador and diplomatic staff who are being held hostage in the French embassy.” In August, the coup leaders demanded French ambassador Sylvain Itte leave the country after France announced its support to the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum. However, the French government refused to comply with the 48-hour ultimatum and to recognise the coup government. Macron then stated: “I will do whatever we agree with President Bazoum because he is the legitimate authority and I speak with him every day.” Nearly 1500 French troops are deployed in Niger fighting Islamist insurgency in the region. The coup leaders halted military cooperation with France and requested the troops to leave quickly. (“Macron says French ambassador ‘literally being held hostage in Niger,” Al Jazeera, 15 September 2023)

Mali signs mutual defence pact with Niger and Burkina Faso
On 16 September, Al Jazeera reported on Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger signing a mutual defence pact to help each other against the threats from armed rebellion and external aggression. They signed the charter, Alliance of Sahel States, that binds the signatories to assist militarily during an attack on any of them. It reads: “Any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties.” Mali military leader Assimi Goita stated: “I have today signed with the Heads of State of Burkina Faso and Niger the Liptako-Gourma charter establishing the Alliance of Sahel States, to establish a collective defence and mutual assistance framework.” The groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have been carrying out frequent attacks in the region. Three countries have undergone coups since 2020; most recently Niger in July. Since then, relations with the West, specifically France, and the regional bloc ECOWAS have deteriorated. France has been forced to withdraw its troops from Mali and Burkina Faso. However, the latest development is a response to ECOWAS threatening military intervention in Niger where Mali and Burkina Faso responded to a “declaration of war” against it. (“Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso establish Sahel security alliance,” Al Jazeera, 16 September 2023)


About the Authors
Anu Maria Joseph is a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. 

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