Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen this week visits the Kingdom of Eswatini — the island’s last Africa ally — following a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to continental powerhouse South Africa, which surrounds Eswatini.
Despite being the last holdout on the continent against Beijing’s “One-China” principle, a spokesperson for the Eswatini government said he did not “anticipate any friction” to arise from Tsai’s visit.
“Will this not anger China? We don’t think so. The Kingdom of Eswatini and the Republic of Taiwan have had diplomatic relations since 1968; we have never had any issues and it is not for the first time by the way that the president of Taiwan visits the Kingdom of Eswatini,” Alpheous Nxumalo told VOA.
Percy Simelane, a spokesperson for Eswatini King Mswati III, echoed that, saying Tsai was coming to attend celebrations commemorating the country’s 55 years of independence from Britain.
“Eswatini’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan are by choice, based on national interest,” he told VOA, adding that Taiwan “has been a strong development partner.”
Sanele Sibiya, an economics lecturer at the University of Eswatini, said aid is one of the reasons the kingdom has stuck by Taipei.
“Taiwan has quite strategic importance for Eswatini in terms of official development assistance,” he said, noting the many students from Eswatini go to study in Taiwan, and Taiwan also helps the impoverished southern African nation in terms of health, infrastructure and agriculture.
Sibiya said he expected new deals to be announced during Tsai’s trip, and for Eswatini “to continue the call for an independent Taiwan in the United Nations and there is an expectation that we will actually hear such a tone within the king’s speech.”
Last month, Eswatini’s representative to the U.N.’s Geneva office, Vuyile Dumisani Dlamini, said Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations was “unjustifiable.”
A statement from Tsai’s office regarding the Eswatini trip said the visit would take place from September 5-8 with “two major goals: to celebrate the enduring friendship between our two countries and to advance our sustainable cooperation.”
Tsai will attend a state banquet held by the king and have meetings with him, according to the itinerary. Her office said bilateral agreements will be signed and Tsai will “inspect the progress of Taiwan-Eswatini joint health care and women’s empowerment projects and visit the Outpatient Department and Emergency Complex of Mbabane Government Hospital.” A medical team sent from Taipei Medical University Hospital is practicing there.
Asked by media whether the trip was intended as a competitive move after Xi’s August visit to South Africa, a Taiwan government official responded that there were “no such considerations about competition and that the similar timing of these trips is nothing more than a coincidence.”
The Chinese embassy in South Africa did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The dispute between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan stems from the Chinese civil war in the 1940s when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists on the Chinese mainland and rebased on the island of Taiwan, also called the Republic of China.
Beijing considers democratically ruled Taiwan a breakaway province — to be retaken with force if necessary.
For most of the 1960s, Taiwan was more influential than China in Africa, but that changed in 1971 when the U.N. General Assembly affirmed China’s place on the body and denied Taiwan a role — with most African states voting with China. Since President Xi’s global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, came to Africa along with Chinese loans and investments, more countries have switched ties to Beijing, with Burkina Faso — the second-to-last supporter of Taiwan on the continent — choosing to sever ties with Taipei in 2018.
Now only the absolute monarchy Eswatini — which has been criticized for human rights abuses — and Somaliland, an unrecognized breakaway region of Somalia, continue to support Taiwan.
And it’s not only African nations that have been changing course. Earlier this year, Honduras cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and allied with China.
Taiwan now has formal ties with only 13 countries, many of them small nations like Nauru and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The United States recognizes China but sells weapons to Taiwan.