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Taiwan – Eswatini: Is their diplomatic relationship coming to an end?

Eric Olander
By Eric Olander

Managing Editor, The China Africa Project

Posted on Friday, 9 July 2021 13:41

King Mswati III of Eswatini addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday, 26 Sept. 2018, at the United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Troops are out on the streets of the tiny southern African kingdom of Eswatini in an effort to quell anti-monarchy protests that look like they could precipitate the fall of King Mswati III.

The precise whereabouts of the King are unknown at this time, with reports indicating that he fled to Johannesburg. But Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied those allegations:  “His Majesty the King is still in the country and continues to lead in working with Government to advance the Kingdom’s goals.”

If the Palace falls, the geopolitical ramifications could be significant. Eswatini is the last remaining African country that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, largely based on King Mswati’s longstanding personal relationships with leaders in Taipei.

But if the King is no longer in power, Eswatini could be in play. One can assume that the Chinese embassy in Pretoria is already in contact with potential successors, with promises of vaccines, investment, trade, scholarships, and so on. Burkina Faso, the most recent African country to switch allegiances, is on the cusp of joining the Belt and Road Initiative and it’s more than likely that Chinese envoys are using the same tactics in Eswatini.

But Taiwan, together with its friends in Washington, is not going to go quietly. Losing Eswatini’s diplomatic recognition would be a major setback for President Tsai Ing-wen’s foreign policy — all but ending the island’s formal diplomatic presence in Africa (Taiwan does have a representative office in Somaliland — but that doesn’t really count, given that Hargeisa is not recognized as an independent country).

Taipei and Washington are no doubt preparing their own incentive package in a bid to maintain the status quo. Vaccines, new US DFC investment, expanded trade with Taiwan are all probably in the mix.

Assuming for the moment that the King is no longer in power, my money’s on China to win this one. There’s just too much at stake for Beijing to mess this up and they’re going to throw everything they’ve got into getting Eswatini on their side.

The optics of bringing an end to Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in Africa is no doubt very alluring. Plus, the fact that this might happen in a FOCAC year means they’d be able, for the first time, to hang all 54 African flags at the upcoming summit in Dakar. Those are both very powerful motivators.

Whoever emerges as the future leader of this tiny, landlocked country, one of the poorest on the continent, we can only hope they are sufficiently enlightened to take advantage of this brief moment in the geopolitical spotlight to benefit the young people who’ve been demanding change.

This article was first published in The China Africa Project.

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