Asia Pacific / Politics

Chinese billions fail to sway Taiwan's last two allies in Africa

by Pauline Bax


Taiwan’s last two African allies have no plans to switch allegiances and break ties with Taipei as Beijing tries to woo the self-ruled island’s diplomatic partners.

Burkina Faso won’t cut relations with Taiwan despite people and companies with links to China offering funding in return for recognition of the so-called One China principle, according to Foreign Minister Alpha Barry. Swaziland said its relationship with Taiwan is based on mutual interests, not on money.

“We get outrageous proposals telling us, ‘if you sign with Beijing we’ll offer you $50 billion or even more,’ ” Barry said in an interview in the capital, Ouagadougou, this month. “Taiwan is our friend and our partner. We’re happy and we see no reason to reconsider the relationship.”

Competition between China and Taiwan for diplomatic allies has intensified since Tsai Ing-wen became the island’s president last year. She has refused to explicitly endorse the One China policy, an acknowledgment that the two are part of the same China even if they disagree on what that means. China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, won’t have diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan as a separate nation.

The Chinese foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to emailed and faxed requests for comment. “Our relations are concrete,” Eleanor Wang, a spokeswoman at Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said by phone when asked about the island’s ties with Burkina Faso and Swaziland. “All cooperation projects are being processed as planned.”

Last month the tiny island nation of Sao Tome and Principe split with Taiwan because it’s facing dwindling support from its traditional partners, mainly oil-producing nations hit by the slump in the crude price. Taiwan said Sao Tome had asked for more than $100 million to maintain relations, and called the move that cut to 21 the number of its diplomatic partners “reckless and unfriendly.”

Sao Tome and Principe Prime Minister Patrice Trovoada denied asking for money, but said the decision to break with Taiwan was necessary to improve the lives of the 200,000 inhabitants of the West African archipelago. China is sending medical aid next month and a Chinese company has already expressed interest in building a deep water port, according to the Macau Daily Times.

At a summit in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered African nations $60 billion in export credit and interest-free and preferential loans, saying that relations between China and Africa “have reached a stage of growth unmatched in history.”

Taiwan’s increasing isolation amid tensions with China was further highlighted when Nigeria on Jan. 11 ordered Taipei to close its trade mission in the capital, Abuja. Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, announced the measure after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who said his government planned to invest $40 billion. Onyeama said the trade office was an “anomaly” and should be moved to the commercial hub, Lagos.

China last year resumed diplomatic relations with Gambia, which initially recognized Taiwan before shifting to China and shifting back again to Taiwan in 1995. When then-President Yahya Jammeh abruptly cut ties with Taiwan in 2013, the Taiwanese foreign affairs minister said Gambia had made financial requests that Taipei considered unacceptable.

That’s left Taiwan with Burkina Faso and Swaziland, two landlocked nations with a combined population of less than 20 million people and economies worth $11 billion and $4 billion, respectively. Burkina Faso resumed relations with Taiwan in 1994 following a 21-year hiatus, while ties between Swaziland and Taiwan date to 1968, making Swaziland the African partner with the longest history.

“It’d be hard to say how long these two countries can stick with Taipei, given that the entire African continent is turning toward China’s economic orbit,” said Zhang Linzheng, professor of political science at National Taiwan University in Taipei. “The Tsai Ing-wen government would feel the difficulties to prop them up.”

Swaziland says it has no plans to change its approach.

“We’re very happy with our relationship and intend to maintain it for a very long time because our friendship is based on our national interests and not on the size of Taiwan’s wallet,” Swaziland government spokesman Percy Simelane said by phone. Taiwan provides doctors to health facilities across the southern African nation, shares agricultural expertise and offers university scholarships.

Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister flew to Burkina Faso in September to discuss projects “and we looked at our cooperation and decided to continue,” Barry said. The talks resulted in subsidies worth €44 million ($47 million) over the next two years in industries ranging from agriculture to education and defense, he said. Taiwan also offers worker training programs and funds tuition for some university students.

Both countries say they’ll continue to lobby for Taiwan’s inclusion as a member of the United Nations.

“I’ve worked as an adviser in Guinea for five years,” said Barry, referring to the West African nation that’s drawn billions of dollars in Chinese investment because it holds the world’s largest reserves of bauxite, used to make aluminum. “I know how much Beijing is worth.”

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