Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen visited Eswatini from September 5 to September 8, in what will likely be one of her last trips abroad as president. The four-day trip was intended to mark 55 years of independence for Eswatini, Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic ally in Africa. Eswatini has maintained ties with Taiwan continuously since its independence in 1968.
This was Tsai’s ninth trip abroad since taking office in 2016 and her second visit to Eswatini during her two terms in office. Tsai was accompanied by Minister of Economic Affairs Wang Mei-hua and Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chi-mai.
During her trip, Tsai hailed the ties between Eswatini and Taiwan, stating that she hoped to see 100 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. To this extent, Tsai touted the aid that Taiwan has provided to Eswatini, in fields ranging from healthcare to agriculture. Tsai particularly emphasized loans and vocational training provided to female entrepreneurs and young people, stressing that 5,000 women had been educated in business and financial management by Taiwan through aid programs. Likewise, Tsai touted Taiwan’s COVID-19 relief efforts, with Eswatini monarch King Mswati III among those to be treated by Taiwan for COVID-19.
During Tsai’s trip, Kaohsiung and Eswatini’s capital of Mbabane inked a sister city agreement, with Chen Chi-mai meeting with his counterpart Vusi Tembe, and both sides touting the opportunities for expanded bilateral exchanges.
Taiwan also promised to assist with the construction of an oil tank. The oil tank is intended to provide Eswatini with 30 days of oil reserves and will be built by Taiwan’s Overseas Investment and Development Corporation, which focuses on overseas aid projects. This will reduce Eswatini’s dependence on oil shipments from South Africa.
King Mswati III spoke highly of Taiwan during Tsai’s visit. Mswati III asserted that ties between Taiwan and Eswatini were not based on calculated interest, but on enduring friendship. To this extent, he promised to continue expressing support for Taiwan’s membership in international bodies from which it is currently excluded, such as the United Nations.
Taiwan is larger than all of its remaining formal diplomatic allies, whether measured in terms of their population or economy. It has traditionally maintained ties with these countries by providing financial support for infrastructure development in return for recognition. In turn, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies speak up for it in international bodies from which Taiwan is excluded.
However, some have questioned the significance of these allies at a time in which Taiwan is increasingly receiving stronger support from the United States, European Union countries, and regional allies such as Japan.
Moreover, the countries with which Taiwan has formal diplomatic ties are largely countries with questionable human rights records, whose links with Taipei date back to its own authoritarian period. And while Taiwan backs infrastructure development in these countries and provides aid for healthcare, education, and other initiatives, Taiwan has also been accused of providing for slush funds for politicians in allied countries. As such, Taiwan has faced criticisms for its “dollar diplomacy” in the past.
Eswatini is one such example. Mswati III is one of the last remaining absolute monarchs in the world. Eswatini – previously known as Swaziland before Mswati III decided to suddenly change the name of the country in 2018 – had its constitution voided in 1973, following which political parties were banned.
Life expectancy in Eswatini has halved between 2000 and 2009 due to high rates of HIV infection. Solutions proposed by the government have included Mswati III calling for “sterilizing and branding” those with HIV in 2011 and suggesting using World Bank funds to pay young women to remain celibate in 2014.
In the face of protests, Mswati III agreed to constitutional changes in 2005, but he continues to maintain a strong grip on power. Pro-democracy protests that took place across cities in Eswatini in the summer of 2021 were met with repression by state security forces, curfews, and the suspension of internet services. At the time, demonstrators were calling for the right to vote.
Taiwan did not respond to the protests, of which there was sparse coverage in Taiwan, but it donated 637 million Taiwanese dollars ($22.9 million) to the Eswatini government for reconstruction afterward.
Earlier this year, Eswatini opposition politician Thulani Maseko, a human rights lawyer by training, was killed by unknown gunmen. This took place shortly after Mswati III commented that people “should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing” critics, stoking the belief that Maseko was killed by guns-for-hire working for the monarchy.
There is little social discussion in Taiwan of the human rights records of its diplomatic allies. Instead, these allies have historically been accorded a special pride of place, in that they maintain ties with Taiwan despite pressure from China.
Indeed, the Chinese government has sought to reduce Taiwan’s diplomatic space in past years, inducing Taiwan’s allies to break ties in favor of recognizing the People’s Republic of China. Though Beijing refrained from “poaching” diplomatic allies of Taiwan when the Ma Ying-jeou administration held power, during Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, Taiwan has seen its count of diplomatic allies drop from 22 to 13.
Tsai may have her eyes on maintaining stable ties with Eswatini because it is Taiwan’s last formal foothold in Africa, at a time in which China has sought to expand its influence on the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative. Eswatini is one of only two African countries not to have signed on to the BRI (the other is Mauritius).
Fears about losing out on the lucrative Chinese market have often been a concern undergirding other countries’ decision to switch recognition to China. But Taiwan’s ties with Eswatini are stable, with Mswati III seeming to prefer maintaining ties with Taiwan.
Mswati III’s children have studied in Taiwan, joining the children of other leaders of countries that maintain ties with Taiwan. Before Honduras broke ties with Taiwan under the presidency of Xiomara Castro, preceding President Juan Orlando Hernández’s children also studied in Taiwan. (This did not prevent Honduran students from being left in a lurch after Taiwan and Honduras broke ties, with scholarships to Honduran students suddenly cut.)
Tsai may have had her eye on Taiwan’s upcoming election in deciding to visit Eswatini for the anniversary of its independence. As part of campaigning, the pan-Blue camp has framed Taiwan’s loss of diplomatic allies as due to diplomatic mismanagement by the Tsai administration, as well as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s unwillingness to communicate with China. Tsai’s visit to Eswatini will serve to reassure domestic constituencies that ties are still stable with some of Taiwan’s allies, even if there is speculation that China may seek to pry away another diplomatic ally ahead of elections as a way to pressure the DPP.
Meanwhile, the Tsai administration has sought to strengthen economic ties with African countries under its Africa Project. The Africa Project was first announced in 2018 after Tsai’s first visit to Eswatini, though it has seen some criticisms over being poorly implemented. Certainly, it has certainly received only a fraction of the attention paid to the New Southbound Policy, which envisions expanding Taiwan’s relations with Southeast and South Asian countries to reduce dependence on China.
Still, trade volume between Taiwan and African countries has increased close to 70 percent since the Africa Project was announced, growing from $4.65 billion to $7.81 billion since 2018. Tsai stated that the Africa Project would continue when meeting with overseas Taiwanese in Eswatini, adding that the plan would be recalibrated based on new insights from the visit.