Taiwan-Africa Relations: Small Successes, Larger Uncertainty
Since the inception of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), there has been a rift between the PRC and the Republic of China (RoC)- Taiwan. The conflict between the two is evident from their struggle in making alliances in the African continent. What turned out to be a game changer for Taiwan in particular was the shifting of RoC to PRC at the United Nations in 1971. This coupled with China’s diplomatic efforts led to decreased support for Taiwan in Africa. The article explores the future of Taiwan’s relations with the last of the two remaining countries: eSwatini and Somaliland.
Photo Credits: Lara Jameson/ Pexels
Today, the Republic of China (Taiwan) benefits from diplomatic relations with one African country only: the Kingdom of eSwatini, formerly Swaziland. But it is a “staunch [alliance]” as reasserted during King Mswati III’s visit in October 2022 (Office of the President, 2022). In the same month, Taiwan announced it would send six military servicemen to Somaliland, its recent second ally in the continent, although they do not enjoy diplomatic relations. But the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is increasingly pressuring these countries to abandon “such immoral and abnormal relation[s]” (Lin Song-tian, cited by Du Plessis, 2020). The future of Taiwan’s last but essential alliances in Africa remains uncertain.
Taiwan-Africa relations: A historical overview
Before World War II, when the Republic of China (ROC) still ruled the mainland, relations with a largely colonized Africa were marginal (Basiru, 2022). Their development was indeed triggered by the end of China’s civil war, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, and the Kuomintang’s retreat to Taiwan with the ROC’s institutions in its suitcase. The newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) soon began to consider independent African countries as precious allies in its “struggle against imperialism” (Mao Zedong, cited by Rich & Banerjee, 2015). On the other side of the Taiwan strait, the ROC sought to maintain itself as the only legitimate government of China and hoped to protect Africa from Communism (Tseng, 2008).
With many African countries gaining independence in the 1960s, both the ROC and the PRC devoted themselves to establishing friendly relations. In 1960, Taipei sent diplomatic delegations to all independence celebrations (Tseng, 2008) quite successfully: by 1963, Taiwan (ROC) had established diplomatic relations with 13 states, while China (PRC) had only managed to rally five (Rich & Banerjee, 2015).
But the 1970s severely undermined the diplomatic stronghold Taiwan had managed to secure heretofore. The substitution of the ROC by the PRC at the United Nations (1971) was a game changer. Throughout the decade, more than 40 African states transferred diplomatic recognition to the PRC (Tseng, 2008). When the United States ultimately did the same in 1979, Taiwan was left with only five allies across the continent. The 1980s further entrenched the downward trend. Gradually, Taiwan’s motive for obtaining diplomatic recognition shifted from asserting itself as the only legitimate government of China, to “[maintaining] de facto independence” in jeopardy (Rich & Banerjee, 2015).
The late 1980s and the end of the Cold War were other turning points. According to Rich & Banerjee (2015), it coincided with ideological considerations being progressively superseded by pragmatic, economic ones driving the decision to recognize either the PRC or the ROC. In terms of economic might, China’s skyrocketing development made it a clear favourite. Nonetheless, Taiwan reversed some of the unfavourable momentum of the past two decades under Lee Teng-hui’s “pragmatic foreign policy.” Thereby the ROC started to use the ‘democracy’ card as a differentiating feature and developed cooperation (Tseng, 2008) with new allies as well as countries it did not have diplomatic relations with. The presidency of Chen Shui-bian (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) beginning in 2000 confirmed an overall cross-partisan consensus on the matter.
But these victories did not foreshadow any long-term return to the African diplomatic stage for Taiwan. In 2006 and 2007, China and Taiwan held their respective Africa summits, in telling contrast. China’s grandiloquent FOCAC gathered 48 African delegations, while Taipei’s summit was attended by five (Kaburu & Kabia, 2022).
The predominance of economic considerations among African countries spurred a period of vivid competition between Taiwan and China frequently referred to as “dollar diplomacy”. Both actively courted African countries by means of aid, investment, and loans. The advantages presented by such tactics to African countries and their elites, coupled with changing political leadership led several countries to switch recognition three, four, or five times from one to another.
The 2008 election of the more conservative Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) and its advocacy for strengthening relations with China prompted a de facto “diplomatic truce” and facilitated dissuading African countries use of recognition as a bargaining chip. Several states like Gambia knocked at China’s door, but their demand was ignored if not rejected. From 2008 to 2016, no countries transferred diplomatic recognition.
The reelection of a DDP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, in 2016, led to the deterioration of cross-strait relations. “The competition […] has started heating up again” (Fabricius, 2018). Moreover, China’s economic presence in Africa had expanded significantly since the 2000s. At a clear economic disadvantage, Taiwan attempted to set itself apart by promoting its development model. In early 2022, a Taiwanese official explained to me: “Taiwan teaches you how to fish, whereas China only catches the fish for you”.
Taiwan also engages in non-diplomatic exchanges with countries it does not recognize, including trade, interparliamentary relations, and various forms of cooperation in domains such as education or technology. For example, although Taiwan does not enjoy official diplomatic relations with South Africa, it is Taiwan’s largest trading partner on the continent (Schultz & Chang, 2018). Their respective Liaison Offices facilitate cooperation, like the inauguration of the Taiwan Digital Opportunity Room in South Africa this year.
Upholding relations with eSwatini and Somaliland
The Taiwanese government is now striving to preserve its relationships with its last ‘allies’ in Africa, namely eSwatini and Somaliland, with some noticeable successes as a near matter of survival.
Taiwan first endeavoured to strengthen its relationship with eSwatini through economic and financial cooperation. Coming back from an official visit to the kingdom in 2018, President Tsai Ing-wen called for an “African Plan” (feizhou jihua 非洲計畫) so as to boost economic relations with eSwatini, South Africa and Mozambique (Schultz & Chang, 2018). In 2019, Taipei also organized a “Taiwan-Africa Business Forum” with eSwatini as a key participant.
Simultaneously, one of Taiwan’s latest successes in Africa may be the advancement of its relationship with Somaliland. Although considered by Somalia as part of its territory, Somaliland engaged with both Taiwan and China in the late 2000s (Laurier, 2022). However, Somaliland sought to upgrade its relationship with Taiwan in 2019 at the expense of China, culminating with the 2020 agreement which established representative offices in both territories. Ever since, cooperation flourished, with a Taiwan Expo (2021) held in Hargeisa, agreements on energy and mineral resources, healthcare assistance, and the recent deployment of alternative military servicemen (Strong, 2022).
Nonetheless, Taiwan’s relationships with its last African allies are precarious and uncertain. First, the PRC exerts pressure on eSwatini and Somaliland using both seduction and threat. In February 2020, the Chinese then-ambassador to South Africa Lin Song-tian published a seven-page document for eSwatini’s attention, titled “no diplomatic relations, no more business benefits”. Similarly, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Li-jian, reacted to Somaliland’s endeavours: those who challenge the ‘One-China Principle’ “will get burned and swallow the bitter fruit” (Reid, 2021). This explicit threat contrasts with its preliminary attempt to court Somaliland. After a disastrous fire in a local market, China’s ambassador to Somalia offered its help (Phillips, 2022). It also attempted to convince officials to abandon ties with Taiwan, in exchange for a new Chinese representative office in Hargeisa (Aspinwall, 2020).
China does not allow any compromise on the ‘Taiwan issue’. But the growing pressure may also be linked to eSwatini and Somaliland’s high strategic value for Beijing. eSwatini’s position between South Africa and Mozambique is key for the transportation of commodities (Olander & van Staden, 2020). Similarly, Somaliland is strategically located on the border of the Gulf of Aden and possesses one of the region’s major ports: Berbera. It is often considered a favorable location for military bases, akin to neighbouring Djibouti.
eSwatini, and to a lesser extent Somaliland, are both vulnerable to Chinese pressure. Taiwan-eSwatini trade is increasing but limited (USD $10.5 million in 2018) (Schultz & Chang, 2018), and some analysts question the efficacy of Taiwan’s “African Plan”. By contrast, China has become indispensable to eSwatini in many sectors. The contradiction between eSwatini’s autocracy and Taiwan’s democracy is sometimes seen as unsustainable. Whilst Taiwan seeks alliances with “like-minded countries”, complacency towards the Swazi regime through for instance financial contribution to the royal jet (Fabricius, 2018), can be questioned domestically and abroad. But one may argue that Taiwan cooperates with an autocratic regime to avoid being taken over by one.
Finally, from a domestic perspective, there is no consensus over maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As seen in the past, recognition often depends on who has power. A growing number of Swazis consider recognising China is in the country’s interest. But King Mswati III has a clear-cut stance on the matter which cannot be debated (Olander & van Staden, 2020), in one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. Tellingly, the 2021 pro-democracy protests led Du Plessis (2021) to ask: will these protests “spell the end of King Mswati’s rule – and relations with Taipei?”.
Although Taiwan’s relationships with its two last allies in Africa, eSwatini and Somaliland, are dynamic if not thriving, they remain precarious, and their future is uncertain. Here again, Taiwan may have to innovate to strengthen these precious relations. Subnational diplomacy, for instance, is a promising tool already leveraged in Taiwan’s relationship with the United States, and is deeply intertwined with Taiwan’s ambition to promote its own “model of cooperation”.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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