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Africa

Taiwan's last African ally holds out against China's influence

media The King of Swaziland Mswati III, 29 May 2015 in Abuja, Nigeria. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

The kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is the last remaining country on the African continent to afford diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. Beijing, which regards the island as a breakaway province, has been piling the pressure on Taiwan's last African ally ahead of next month's China-Africa summit but eSwatini won't be swayed that easily.

“The reluctance of Swaziland, or eSwatini, to change ties is not something that should surprise us," says Stephen Chan, a professor at Soas University in London.

"There’s actually a very strong relationship between the King of eSwatini, King Mswati III, which the Taiwanese have been at great pains to cultivate," he told RFI.

Since Chaing Kai-Shek's nationalists took refuge there from Mao's revolution in the 1940s, Taiwan's government has styled itself the Republic of China, while Beijing refers to it as "Chinese Taipei".

That has led to a diplomatic tussle which has obliged governments to choose which they recognise, with most picking Beijing since the 1970s, when the US switched sides.

Swazi students relieved

In June, King Mswati III visited Taipei to show his country's commitment to Taiwan.

"When he was here he reaffirmed it not just to the students who study in Taiwan but other Swazis who now live and work in Taiwan," 24-year-old economics and diplomacy student Seluliwe Vilakati told RFI on the phone from the Taiwanese capital.

For her, the countries' bilateral relations are steeped in a shared history.

“It goes beyond the government in power. It’s with the Taiwanese people themselves," she says, referring to the military schools, police academies and vibrant embassy that populate Taiwan and make it "feel like we've built a home away from home".

"If you’re walking down the street and you see a person of colour, the safe assumption is that they’re from eSwatini," she explains. "We feel safe and comforted by the fact that our government has continued to maintain [ties] and allay any fears that we may have about any pending changes.”

At the forefront of her mind, is the recent diplomatic U-turn of Burkina Faso from Taiwan to China after 24 years.

"It displaced so many students," she comments.

"When the memorandum is sent out that you need to pack up, the universities can’t help the kids because their scholarships are funded on the basis of the countries being diplomatic allies."

For Vilakati, "it’s not just about the countries themselves, it’s about people who’ve made lives here. We as people of eSwatini appreciate his majesty for reaffirming and maintaining the relationship.”

Taiwan invests

The choice of Taiwan over China wasn't hard to make, reckons Chan.

"There's a care" channelled into key sectors in eSwatini by the Taiwanese that can't be underestimated.

"They've invested in rural electrification for the benefit of agriculture, provided computers to help educational institutions, and increased medical training for staff at health clinics and hospitals," he explains.

New Taiwanese president confronts Beijing

Yet Taiwan's approach does have its critics.

"China was letting Taiwan have its relations with the remaining five African countries because it did not feel it was a danger for China," comments Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective and Security Studies (IPSE).

That changed with the arrival of new president Tsai Ing-wen who has taken a tough line on the People's Republic of China.

"With the new presidency, now China is more ferocious and not letting Taiwan have its say on the African continent anymore."

And this rivalry is likely to intensify as the China-Africa summit in early September draws near.

"I wouldn’t be surprised for a great deal of projects to be given to Mozambique right on the border with eSwatini so that people can cast an envious eye on what the Chinese are doing in a neighbouring country," says Soas's Chan.

IPSE's Dupuy thinks it will be "less than a year" before eSwatini shifts over to Beijing, as Sao Tome and Principe, Panama and the Dominican Republic have done.

“If your friendship is for sale or if it can be bought, that means it can be revoked at a higher price," Vilakati says.

"At some point, you have to decide as a country, which sort of ideals you support, because anyone can sign a check. We’re not just a million faces that can be bought."

So, as the People's Republic extends its already large influence in Africa, the bidding war for recognition is likely to continue.

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