Africa: Taiwan Tries to Hold On to Eswatini, Its Last Remaining Ally in Africa

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has wrapped up a visit to eSwatini, Taipei’s only diplomatic ally in Africa, after signing a string of development agreements. But will the relationship hold?

eSwatini is one of only 13 countries worldwide that officially recognise Taiwan over China, which claims the self-ruled island as its own territory.

As such the southern African kingdom, formerly known as Swaziland, has become a critical piece in Taipei’s diplomatic puzzle.

Tsai arrived on Tuesday for a four-day visit, meeting with King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, local politicians and members of the Asian community.

Taiwan and eSwatini signed a series of memorandums of understanding to help the kingdom, including a women’s entrepreneurship fund and a cooperation agreement on the construction of a strategic oil reserve facility.

“I look forward to a successful execution of this project so that we will be able to establish a strategic oil reserve facility here to make the supply of energy more secure in the future,” Tsai said, according to a video released by her office on Wednesday.

Quoted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency, King Mswati said that he would “continue to promote Taiwan’s participation in all United Nations Institutions”, adding that “Taiwan is an example of a first-world country”.

Our trip to Eswatini is off to a productive start. Today, with King Mswati III, I witnessed the signing of 3 bilateral agreements that will further deepen the #Taiwan#Eswatini partnership & met with members of our overseas community from all over Southern Africa who moved me…— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) September 6, 2023

‘Symbolic value’

eSwatini, which has struggled with fuel shortages in recent years, was left as the only African country to formally recognise Taiwan when Burkina Faso switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 2018.

This was Tsai’s second trip to the kingdom, during which she attended celebrations marking its independence day, the king’s 55th birthday, and the 55th anniversary of Taiwan-eSwatini diplomatic ties.

According to the Taipei Times, King Mswati has visited Taiwan 18 times since he took the throne in 1986.

In 2021 he said he had recovered from Covid-19 after Tsai sent antiviral medication to help him, at a time when his country of 1.2 million people was still waiting for its first vaccines against the disease.

For Taiwan, “eSwatini has mostly a symbolic value as it’s the only diplomatic ally in Africa”, says Kristina Kironská, co-director of the Central Europe Institute of Asian Studies in Bratislava, Slovakia.

As long as he’s in power, the support is there.

01:16 REMARKS by Kristina Kironská, co-director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies in Bratislava

Jan van der Made “There’s a consensus between both [Taiwanese political] parties, the Kuomintang and Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, which both believe that a stable pool of allies is necessary to support the claim of external sovereignty,” she told RFI.

Tsai Ing-wen was first elected as Taiwan’s president in 2016 and refuses to accept China’s claim on the island.

Since then, Beijing has managed to win over nine of Taipei’s diplomatic allies.

In Africa, Taiwan has lost formal relations with Liberia, Senegal, Chad, Malawi, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso within the past 20 years.

Taiwan’s diplomatic relations as of September 2023 Countries that recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state: 13

Asia Pacific [4]

  • Republic of Nauru
  • Tuvalu
  • Marshall Islands
  • Palau

Africa [1]

  • Kingdom of Eswatini

Europe [1]

  • Vatican City

Latin America [7]

  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Haïti
  • Paraguay
  • St Christopher and Nevis
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines

Source: Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Race for allies

Kironská points out that Beijing and Taipei entered into a truce of sorts between 2008 and 2016, with a silent agreement that they would not “take over each other’s allies” – a direct result of the Kuomintang being elected as governing party in Taipei. The party is “known for a more pro-Chinese stance” while “looking for closer relations with China“, she says.

Even countries like Gambia and Panama, which tried unilaterally to switch sides from Taipei to Beijing, were rebuffed, she says.

But that all ended when the Taiwanese nationalist Democratic Progressive Party came back to power in 2016, and Beijing moved fast to snatch away Gambia, then Sao Tome and Principe, then Burkina Faso.

But eSwatini has so far stood firm.

The country has had relations with Taiwan since its independence from Britain in 1968, Kironská notes. Taiwan – officially the Republic of China – opened an embassy in eSwatini (then Swaziland) that same year.

“eSwatini is an absolute monarchy and the king has the last word on everything,” says Kironská. “And he supports Taiwan. So as long as he’s in power, the support is there.”

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