eSwatini - Taiwan's last friend in Africa

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Swaziland absolute Monarch King Mswati III (L) poses with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (R) after awarding her with the Order of the Elephant during her visit to the Kingdom of Swaziland at an official ceremony on April 18, 2018 in Lozitha Palace, Manzini.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
King Mswati III awarded Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-we the Order of the Elephant at his palace in 2018

China has tried to win over eSwatini repeatedly, but the tiny kingdom, previously known as Swaziland, is staying with Taiwan for "diplomatic and political morality" even though it is left standing alone.

It is the only African country that maintains diplomatic relations with the Asian island after Burkina Faso switched to China in May 2018.

China does not allow countries to have official ties with both itself and Taiwan as it regards the island as a breakaway province that it has vowed to retake, by force if necessary.

But the government of eSwatini says it will stick with Taiwan.

'Our national interest'

A new economic agreement signed last June has just taken effect and will see the southern Africa nation exporting certain goods - including honey and avocados - to Taiwan duty free.

"It's national interest more than anything else," long-serving eSwatini Government Spokesman Percy Simelane told the BBC in the capital, Mbabane.

"They have been with us since independence and they have contributed immensely to the socio-economic development of this country," he explained.

Taiwan quickly recognised Swaziland when it gained independence from Britain in 1968, leading to an unlikely alliance that has lasted half a century.

Why are countries forced to choose between Taiwan and China?

Howard Zhang, BBC News Chinese Editor

Image source, AFP

In essence, the current dispute between China and Taiwan stems from the technically unfinished Chinese Civil War.

The dispute is further complicated by factors such as different interpretations of post-World War Two and post-Cold War international treaties and settlements.

In 1945, Japan surrendered control of occupied Taiwan and surrounding islands to the Republic of China (ROC).

Four years later, the government of Republic of China lost the Chinese mainland in a civil war and fled to Taiwan.

The Communists soon founded a rival government - the People's Republic of China (PRC) - or the China we know today.

Nowadays, PRC insists that both Mainland and Taiwan belongs to "one China" and reserves the right to reunite the country.

Taiwan, still formally known as the Republic of China, is arguing that as a democratic society, the ultimate choice lie with the people of Taiwan.

ESwatini may be standing its ground in a decades-old dispute between China and Taiwan, but not everyone is all in.

The Communist Party of Swaziland, which refuses to adopt the country's new name, says both sides are illegitimate and merely propping each other up on the international stage.

"The people of Swaziland are kept in a state of poverty [because the government] are using donations that are coming straight from Taiwan," the party's international secretary Njabulo Dlamini said.

'Only the monarchy benefits'

The straight-talking teacher, admirer of Cuban society and self-declared revolutionary, is one of the few Communist Party officials still living in eSwatini.

"Swazis do not benefit [but] the monarchy and the friends of the monarchy are directly benefiting from this illegitimate and illegal relationship," he added.

The small, landlocked country of just 1.3 million people depends on neighbouring South Africa for about 85% of its imports and sells it about 60% of its exports.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Burkina Faso severed ties with Taiwan in 2018 in favour of China

Taiwan's leaders dispute China's insistence that it is a province, arguing instead that it is a sovereign state.

It has its own constitution, democratically elected leaders, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces. It also enjoys diplomatic ties with about 20 nations.

However the UN has not recognised the Taiwanese government since 1971, when it switched diplomatic recognition to China instead.

No to 'dollar diplomacy'

ESwatini's King Mswati III is Africa's last absolute monarch and has made 17 trips to Taiwan, including in June 2018 when he accepted an honorary degree in management at the same university from which his son graduated.

When African leaders gathered in Beijing for the Forum on China Africa Cooperation summit last September, King Mswati was hosting his annual traditional Reed Dance where he selected his 15th wife.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced another $60bn (£47bn) in financing to Africa, but eSwatini says it is not missing out.

"We don't want a situation where we are considered people who are in the line of dollar diplomacy. Ours is, more than anything else, a position of diplomatic and political morality," said Percy Simelane, who serves as spokesman for both the monarch and the government that he rules by decree.

Image caption,
ESwatini depends neighbouring South Africa for about 85% of its imports

Without the deep pockets of mainland China, Taiwan regularly attacks Beijing's debt-driven spending spree in Africa and sees itself as a better partner for eSwatini.

"We're not sure about that," Mduduzi Gina of Swaziland's Trade Union Congress told the BBC.

While he will not be drawn on which of the two he favours, he said China's grip on the continent cannot be understated.

"There are some serious arguments going around that some backdoor Asia colonisation is taking place and it has taken the face of mainland China."

Hearts and minds

The government of eSwatini touts Taiwan's funding of its rural electrification programme and other support but Taiwan is also winning hearts and minds with scholarships.

Thandeka Dlamini's voice cracks with emotion when she talks about her four years spent as an undergraduate in the capital, Taipei, where she graduated top of her International Business and Trade class in 2017.

"I was just a kid, raised by a single parent. It is very touching to me because my mother didn't have the funds, so to get that fully funded scholarship really changed my life."

She now works for a government agency as a consultant and denies the opposition's claim that King Mswati, the royal family and the elites around him have used their ties with Taiwan to enrich themselves while a majority of the population remain impoverished.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Scholarships offer young people the chance to study in Taiwan

"At the time, the government here was having some fiscal issues and university students did not get their allowance or it wasn't paid on time - but I didn't have any problems and my mother didn't have to send me any money," Ms Dlamini says.

Taiwan's embassy in eSwatini - the only one in Africa - politely declined interview requests, but its ambassador praised the bilateral ties between the two in a letter to the editor in the Times of Swaziland last September.

"There is no question that China's debt-trap diplomacy, as African, Balkan and South Asian countries have quickly come to discover, is a one-way ticket to poverty and servitude. It is also a sure-fire way of surrendering sovereignty forever," wrote Taiwan's Ambassador to eSwatini, Jeremy Liang.

Though eSwatini is Taiwan's last ally in Africa, it is only the the island's 156th largest trading partner. But in 2018 trade between the two countries jumped 41% to reach nearly $10m (£7.8m).

"We can't just throw Taiwan away," the government spokesman said.

He ruled out a switch to China. "We're not interested in what is being offered."

Who does Taiwan have diplomatic relations with?

In Latin America and the Caribbean: Belize, Haiti, Nicaragua, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras and Saint Lucia

In Africa: Swaziland

In Europe: The Holy See

In the Pacific: Kiribati, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Palau