You have to feel for Taiwan. Last week the tiny island state lost yet another African ally, Burkina Faso, to its very big brother Beijing. This leaves it with only one nation on the continent that formally recognises it, the even tinier eSwatini (formerly Swaziland).
Burkina Faso broke formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan on 24 May and two days later re-established formal ties with China. This was in observance of Beijing’s very strictly enforced One China policy, which allows no state to recognise both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (aka Taiwan).
Taipei expressed ‘disappointment and outrage’ about Burkina’s ‘decision to succumb to China’s dollar diplomacy and in so doing disregard the significant contributions Taiwan has made to the West African nation’s economic development, national security, social stability and welfare over the past 24 years’.
From Beijing’s side, An Fengshan, spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, told the state news agency Xinhua: ‘The One China principle is a universal consensus of the international community.’
Taiwan has now become an almost forgotten casualty of China’s big drive into Africa over the past two decades. Most African countries switched recognition after China edged Taiwan out of its permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 1971. Quite a few holdouts remained on Taiwan’s side, but they steadily abandoned it.
More recently, in 1998 the democratic new South Africa – which had rather surprisingly held out for several years – eventually switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Liberia did so in 2002, Senegal in 2005, Chad in 2006 and Malawi in 2008.
Taiwan’s snipe about China resorting to ‘dollar diplomacy’ to seduce Burkina Faso was ironic, since the contest for recognition in Africa was once almost explicitly an auction. Diplomatic relations went to the state that bid the highest, in the form of foreign aid to the African country concerned.
In 1992, a $50-million loan to Niger resulted in recognition of Taiwan’s statehood. Three years later, Taiwan lent $35-million to Gambia with the same result, according to Voice of America. Then Beijing and Taipei seemed to realise they were being played by many African countries and quietly called off the contest in 2008.
But when President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in Taiwan in 2016 that changed, because her Democratic Progressive Party leans more towards independence than the previous Kuomintang ruling party, says Cobus van Staden, senior researcher on China-Africa relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Since then the competition around gaining allies in Africa, South America and the Pacific islands has started heating up again. In Africa, Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and now Burkina Faso, have switched alliances.
But Van Staden doesn’t think African nations are necessarily being bullied into switching. The attractions of befriending a China resurgent in Africa – such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative with all their infrastructure investments – have simply become irresistible.
Elsewhere across the globe, Taiwan’s diplomacy has also been in retreat and only 18 countries now recognise it. Most are minute Pacific island states like Kiribati, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu – which Beijing evidently has its sights on too as part of its strategy to expand its maritime footprint. Taiwan’s allies also still include a few larger, yet authoritarian, nations like Nicaragua and Guatemala. Plus the Vatican, interestingly.
Clearly Taiwan hasn’t been able to afford to be too picky in this diplomatic contest with its big and much more highly favoured neighbour, the second largest economy in the world, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
That lack of real choice also shows clearly in its last ally in Africa, eSwatini, the sole remaining absolute monarchy in Africa. Tsai was the only foreign head of state to attend the country’s 50-50 celebrations last month – 50 years of independence plus King Mswati III’s 50th birthday. According to Swazi media, Taipei contributed US$1.3-million towards the cost of the birthday bash. It also substantially subsidising the latest royal jet at a cost of US$30-million.
Does it matter that Taiwan is being forced to retreat from Africa? Most analysts think it’s inevitable and therefore irrelevant. China’s One Policy is seen as so clearly non-negotiable that African states have simply given in to China’s increasingly muscular diplomacy.
China-Africa expert Martyn Davies, managing director of emerging markets and Africa at Deloitte Southern Africa, goes further. ‘I think Taiwan’s foreign policy has always been an oxymoron and an anachronism,’ he told ISS Today, adding that Taiwan was a ‘politically confused country’.
Davies believes the so-called Taipei Liaison Offices that Taiwan maintains in many countries with which it doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations (such as South Africa) are good things, because through them Taiwan maintains often vibrant economic relations with these countries.
But for Taiwan to go further by pursuing a formal foreign policy and trying to maintain or increase diplomatic ties made no sense, Davies said – it contradicted Taiwan’s policy of not formally declaring independence from China. How could a country that did not formally exist have formal diplomatic relations, he asked.
Davies said he was sure that neither the Taiwanese nor the Swazi people cared whether their governments maintained formal diplomatic relations, and he was sure the Taiwanese people did not appreciate their government funding King Mswati. Much of this is no doubt true and certainly the African friends Taipei has had to make have often not been very savoury.
Despite that, it is also true that even though many Africans aspire to be like the autocratic People’s Republic of China, Taiwan presents in some ways a better model for Africa than its big neighbour. It was a dictatorship that evolved steadily into what is now a fully functioning democracy running a dynamic economy.
And surely it is also unfair to blame Taiwan for the contradiction between being unwilling to declare independence and trying to pursue a foreign policy. The only reason it doesn’t formally declare independence is that that might invite oblivion, visited upon it from across the straits.
A Taiwanese diplomat was once asked why his country persisted in its dogged quest for diplomatic recognition, since it seemed to be functioning very well without it. Was this just pointless symbolism? His answer was poignant. ‘If we don’t continually remind the world of our existence, we might disappear one day and no one would notice.’
So pursuing international recognition is a rather desperate declaration of its existence, not so much an anomaly as yet another manifestation of the profound ambiguity under which Taiwan is forced to live, as a de facto independent state that dare not speak its name.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant