Written by Kristina Kironska.
Image credit: Taiwanese technical mission in Eswatini by the author.
Taiwan did not always have such a limited presence in Africa as it does now. Its official relations with the countries on the continent began in 1949, shortly after the Nationalists were driven out of China by the Communists during the Chinese Civil War. Altogether 30 African countries at one time or another maintained formal relations with Taiwan, but today the country is a politically marginalised actor with a minuscule presence mostly confined to the pursuit of economic interests.
Taiwan’s competitive advantage vis-à-vis China in the past – a powerful economy which could use its economic might to woo poor African countries – waned in the 21st century as China’s economic power continued to grow. China’s economic might has now given it tremendous power through its multibillion-dollar investments in trade and development. This has attracted scores of African countries to establish relations with China, leaving Taiwan with only Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) – a tiny country in southern Africa.
This unlikely alliance has lasted half a century – since Taiwan recognised Swaziland right after it gained independence from Britain in 1968. Taiwan set up an embassy in Mbabane the same year, while the Embassy of the Kingdom of Swaziland in Taiwan officially opened in Taipei in 2000.
Eswatini’s King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch, and the so-called politics of the belly can be found in this small landlocked country, where the king rules by decree over his 1.3 million subjects, most of whom live in the countryside. Eswatini does not have relations with China, and Taipei has poured millions of investment and donation dollars into the country – funding schools, hospitals, businesses, rural electrification, and infrastructure projects, such as a new airport. According to the opposition in Eswatini, however, the king, the royal family, and the elites have used their ties with Taiwan to enrich themselves. At the same time, a majority of the population remains impoverished. According to the World Bank, almost 40% of the population lives in extreme poverty.
The king has been a regular visitor to Taiwan, making seventeen trips to date. All the state visits were “at the invitation” of Taiwan and thus subsidised by Taipei. He last visited in 2018, along with several ministers. While in Taiwan, the king accepted an honorary degree in management at the same university from which his son had graduated. That year, President Tsai Ying-wen also visited Eswatini and pledged to strengthen mutual cooperation. By the end of the year, the Economic Cooperation Agreement between Taiwan and Eswatini went into effect – setting the framework for future collaboration while at the same time reducing the tariffs on 153 commodities.
Eswatini is a developing country with a small agricultural economy, and the biggest industries there include forestry, labour-intensive textiles, sugar production, and cattle production. For the last ten years, Eswatini has only ranked as Taiwan’s 149th largest trading partner, with a trade share well below 1%. Taiwan today exports machinery and semifinished products to Eswatini, while it imports beef, textiles, and fruit. In 2018, trade between the two countries jumped 40% to reach over 10 million USD, with Taiwan’s exports to Eswatini constituting the majority of this sum and Taiwan’s imports from Eswatini only a little more than 400 thousand USD.
The Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) is trying to promote Africa in general and introduce Eswatini to Taiwanese businesspeople (as an English-speaking country, much safer than other African countries, with cheap labour and a big market nearby – South Africa) since it remains fairly unknown.
Currently, there are only about 20 to 30 Taiwanese investors in Eswatini – mostly in the textile business or agricultural sector (for example, producing cotton). Most of them, however, are local Taiwanese from neighbouring South Africa. Conversely, there are no Eswatini investors in Taiwan.
In terms of academic exchange, Taiwan has been highly active. In 2018, over 40 Eswatini students received scholarships for studying in Taiwan. That year, more than 250 Eswatini students in Taiwan were invited to a celebration dinner at EDA World in the south of Taiwan on the occasion of the king’s visit. Taiwan has dispatched several technical teams to Eswatini to implement projects ranging from food security through technical education and training, e-governance, and e-commerce. For example, Taiwan has assisted with potato production, from seed development to packaging, making Eswatini less dependent on imports from South Africa. Taiwan had also helped with seed breeding and fruit tree planting – drawing on Taiwan’s experience from the 1950s and 1960s when it was one of the biggest banana exporters in the world. In addition, many Eswatini students are enrolled in tropical agriculture studies at the National Pingdong University to prepare for work in the agricultural sector upon return home.
Image 1: Taiwanese technical mission in Eswatini (Image credit: author)
Image 2: A banana farm in Eswatini developed with Taiwanese assistance (Image credit: author)
Taiwan has also provided medical support to Eswatini, including pregnancy and infant health improvement planning, sending doctors and nurses to work at the capital’s government hospital and training the local staff. During the pandemic, Taiwan donated surgical masks, bedside monitors, forehead thermometers, gloves, goggles, gowns, infrared scanners, pharmaceuticals, rapid testing kits, ventilators, and an ambulance, plus sent a Taiwan Can Help medical team.
Taiwan has created some 13,000 jobs in Eswatini, with the textile company Tex-Ray (a global company with headquarters in Taiwan) being the biggest employer in the country. The company’s chairman was even awarded the Friend of Foreign Service Medal by the MOFA in 2016 to honour his contribution to promoting bilateral relations between Taiwan and Eswatini. It is no exaggeration to say that this company is the centrepiece of the bilateral relationship between the two nations. Therefore, it is unclear what would happen if this manufacturer withdrew from Eswatini.
Taiwan’s support for Eswatini has changed from mere agricultural cooperation to a more comprehensive form because Taiwan is well aware of the (symbolic) value of Eswatini as its last official diplomatic ally in Africa. While Chinese influence can also be felt in Eswatini, for now, Taiwan still dominates. Taiwan is well known in the country, and visiting Taiwanese officials are often jokingly referred to as “money wo/man”, while Taiwan is the second most common destination for students after South Africa.
Although Taiwan has poured millions of dollars in investment and aid into Eswatini, much of this has supported the so-called politics of the belly – where elites take advantage of their positions to enrich themselves, blurring the lines between private and public business. As such, as long as King Mswati III is in power, it is unlikely that Taiwan will lose this alliance. Without him, however, many are sceptical about the future of this alliance.
The full version of this article has been published under the title How Taiwan Lost Africa and What The Future Holds for Its Last Remaining Alliance with Eswatini in Africa-China-Taiwan Relations 1949-2020, Lexington Books, edited by Sabella Abide. Link: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781793649669/Africa-China-Taiwan-Relations-1949%E2%80%932020
Kristina Kironska is a socially engaged interdisciplinary academic with experience in Myanmar Studies, Taiwan Affairs, CEE-China Relations, human rights, election observation, and advocacy. Currently, she is conducting research within the Sinophone Borderlands project administered by the Palacky University Olomouc. She is also the Advocacy Director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.