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MBABANE, Eswatini — A visit by Taiwan’s president this week to strengthen ties with Eswatini, the island’s only African ally, has highlighted the extent to which Taipei contributes to its counterpart’s economy — much to the ire of pro-democracy campaigners.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory with no right to state-to-state relations and Eswatini is one of only 13 countries in the world to still maintain diplomatic relations with the island. China has been winning countries over to its position, with Burkina Faso and Central America’s Honduras the latest to end diplomatic relations with Taipei, in 2017 and in 2023 respectively.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit — which began late on Tuesday and was due to end today — also highlighted growing business connections with Eswatini and the extent of aid it provides. Her visit coincides with the 55th anniversary of independence for the southern African nation, formerly known as Swaziland and ruled by an absolute monarchy. Taiwan established a diplomatic mission in Mbabane back in 1968, the same year Eswatini gained self-rule from the British.
Taiwan is often quick to champion its democratic credentials and values to make a clear distinction from China’s authoritarian one-party system. But in Eswatini pro-democracy critics say it is effectively propping up an authoritarian regime just because it is one of a handful of countries that recognizes Taiwan’s state status. Most of those are “largely countries with questionable human rights records,” said Brian Hioe, editor of Taipei-based publication New Bloom. The relationships often involve Taiwan’s financial support, sometimes described as “dollar diplomacy.”
The Taiwanese president, alongside Eswatini monarch Mswati III, signed three memorandums of understanding as soon as she arrived, state media reported. The MoUs were an agreement on women empowerment, a partnership between two cities of the two countries, and a deal for cooperation between overseas Investment & Development Corp, Taiwan and the Eswatini Petroleum Company.
Tsai’s visit comes two years after Eswatini security forces violently quelled pro-democracy protests, leaving at least 90 people dead, according to the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice.
Taiwan plays a significant role in Eswatini’s economy and provides sizable aid contributions. In May, the two sides held an “economic and technical cooperation conference” in Taipei where it was revealed that annual bilateral trade more than doubled over the last five years. It effectively props up the regime of King Mswati III by funding projects in education, electrification, agriculture, and providing aid among others.
But the elephant in the room is China, as Eswatini’s pro-democracy movement reminds the government here often. Mlungisi Makhanya, president of the now-banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), told local press recently: “As the Swazi people, we will change course and forge principled diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. It is apparent that the province of Taiwan is financially supporting this repressive regime.”
Eswatini stands to lose out on links with the much larger Chinese market by maintaining ties with Taiwan, said New Bloom’s Hioe, who argued that many of the island’s former diplomatic allies were motivated to break ties with Taiwan due to the economic opportunities offered by Beijing. Ultimately Taipei cannot outspend the world’s second largest economy.
“I largely suspect it is a combination of Mswati III’s personal fondness for Taiwan as well as Taiwan’s strong desire to maintain ties with its last remaining ally in Africa which causes ties to endure,” he said.
Eswatini is, of course, the last domino that China would like to see fall, though experts point out it’s far from a priority as it’s not a strategically important country in geopolitical or economic terms. Besides, there is nothing at present to suggest this will happen anytime soon, unless there are radical changes in the kingdom’s governance.
Room for Disagreement
Khetsiwe Msibi, who has been teaching English as a second language in Taiwan since July, says the relationship between the two countries is important and of benefit to ordinary Eswatini citizens. “Even getting into Taiwan is easy,” she said. “You don’t need to go through the whole visa routine. You just have to buy a ticket and then go; so, it’s quite good. And the fact that they allow emaSwati to seek employment in their country, even if one initially went there on holiday,makes things easier. And the pay is way better than it is at home.”
The Taiwanese embassy had not provided Semafor Africa with data detailing the number of Eswatini students and workers in Taiwan by the time of publication.
The View From CHINA WATCHERS
Long time China watchers have largely been underwhelmed by the visit. Eric Olander, editor of China Global South Project, described it as a “non event”. “The fact that the Chinese have not said a word about this visit all week is notable because they usually overreact every time she leaves the island,” he explained. He said China seems prepared to wait things out until the king leaves power. “China would love to have the entire African continent wrapped up but they seem content to also go on with one lone holdout.”
Amnesty International in June urged Eswatini’s authorities to stop using the courts to intimidate and harass labor union leaders. The rights group accused authorities of “effectively criminalizing peaceful dissent.”