In recent months, pro-democracy protests have set Eswatini on an uncertain path, and Beijing is keeping close watch, given that Taiwan has been maintaining close ties with the tiny southern African country through its absolute ruler, King Mswati III.
Now there is a real prospect that the youth-led protests, unprecedented in their scale and intensity, could change things for Mswati and have Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) join the 53 other countries on the African continent in establishing ties with China.
Since China’s former ambassador to neighboring South Africa, the outspoken Lin Songtian, returned to Beijing in April last year, China seems to have reverted to the position stated by China’s special envoy to Africa, Xu Jinghu, at the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation summit in Beijing in 2018. China “won’t exert any pressure” on Eswatini to break ties with Taiwan, he said. “We’ll wait for the time to be right.”
At the same summit, another official said that although Taipei has accused Beijing of offering generous aid and loan packages to entice countries to switch their allegiance, this was ultimately a political decision and not a financial deal.
But the world’s largest economy has considerable muscle, and even if it isn’t dangling money before potential allies, it still has the carrot and stick of trade.
Two months before his departure, and shortly after the re-election of the anti-China Tsai administration in Taipei, Ambassador Lin issued a strongly-worded statement aimed at the Eswatini government, saying, “no diplomatic relations, no more business benefits.”
Swazi citizens – mostly businesspeople – are now being forced to drive four hours to China’s embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, for visas. China is also pressuring other African nations to diplomatically and economically isolate Eswatini.
“It is very hard for the friendly African countries of China to attend any (African Union) summit hosted by a country refusing to recognize the One-China Principle and maintaining so-called ‘diplomatic ties’ with Taiwan,” Lin’s statement read. Eswatini was preparing to host last year’s mid-year African Union (AU) summit by erecting a convention center and hotel with Taiwan’s help, but even before COVID-19 put the world into lockdown, China’s pressure on AU member states meant this wasn’t going to happen.
China and Taiwan do not accept diplomatic relations with a country that recognizes the other, ever since a split between the two in 1949 following a long civil war. Most countries have over time turned their support to China after the United Nations accepted the People’s Republic government in Beijing in 1971.
Burkina Faso became the second-to-last African country to sever ties with Taiwan, four months ahead of the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. Currently only 15 mostly small countries maintain relations with Taiwan, as well as Somaliland, which isn’t a recognized country but which came onboard last year.
Taiwan considers itself as a resilient democracy opposed to China’s one-party state, and it also enjoys good favor from the United States, particularly a time when Washington is ramping up for great power competition with Beijing.
Although Eswatini is unlikely to attend the FOCAC summit in Senegal next month, China’s waiting game could pay off as Mswati finds himself increasingly isolated in the AU and in the Southern African Development Community. Even the U.S., which has a big embassy in Mbabane and which has poured millions of dollars in aid into the impoverished kingdom, is losing patience. Mswati’s soldiers fired live rounds at a U.S. diplomatic vehicle and searched it at a checkpoint amidst the chaos last month.
“Beijing has time, it plays the long game,” says David Monyae, co-director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Johannesburg. Taiwan’s unbroken relationship with Eswatini since its independence in 1968 is one of “convenience and desperation,” he said. “Taiwan is quite aware that they’re on the wrong side of history, supporting one of the worst dictatorships and an absolute monarchy.”
Taiwan also maintained ties with apartheid South Africa, which switched allegiance to China in 1998, four years after the country became a democracy under the presidency of Nelson Mandela.
Even if the current protests don’t bring down the absolute monarchy, Monyae speculates that Mswati could choose to switch to China should his survival depend on it. “When you switch to mainland (China) it always comes with a lot of goodies like infrastructure development, airports and roads,” Monyae says.
COVID-19 has exacerbated Eswatini’s already ailing economy, where 58.9 percent of the population lived below the $1.90 poverty baseline in 2019, according to the country’s voluntary review to the United Nations. This figure is higher in rural areas.
Eswatini’s business-led economic growth strategy was dealt a blow by the large-scale looting and burning of shops during the protests at the end of June and into July, which also resulted in dozens of deaths and serious injuries. Activists claim that security forces hounded them in their homes to mutilate or kill them, while two dissenting members of Parliament were recently arrested on terrorism charges.
At the end of 2019, China invited a handful of influential Eswatini MPs on a study trip, after which one of them, Marwick Khumalo, unsuccessfully attempted to table a motion to call for an economic trade and tourism mission for China.
Taiwanese Ambassador Jeremy Liang is reported to have applied pressure to suppress the debate. “These people should know what Taiwan has done for the people of Eswatini and the government,” he told Swaziland News.
China also subsequently paid for advertorials in Swaziland News and The Nation magazine on trade benefits, attracting a lot of criticism.
Swaziland News editor Zweli Martin Dlamini says people in Eswatini want a better life and could be lured by China’s promises of development, “but many are concerned that China is putting countries into huge debt.” The pros and cons should be openly debated, but The Nation editor Bheki Makhubu points out that Mswati is an absolute monarch: “If he says we go with Taiwan, we go with Taiwan, regardless of what we say.”
Mswati’s political opponents, such as the banned Communist Party of Swaziland, say he is personally benefiting from Taiwan. One of his sons, Prince Benkhosi Dlamini, in 2018 graduated from Taiwan’s Shih Chien University, followed by Taiwan’s granting of 100 more full scholarships to ordinary citizens for the following three years.
Mswati claims that Taiwanese anti-bacterial drugs cured him from COVID-19 in January. Taipei has also donated medical equipment and food to Eswatini.
China, one of Eswatini’s biggest trade partners, has not yet made good on its sanctions threat. “Trade relations have remained normal,” says commerce, industry and trade minister Manqoba Khumalo.
China’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said in July that China was “highly concerned” about the riots in Eswatini and stood ready to provide COVID-19 assistance, including vaccines. By the end of July only about 65,000 vaccine doses had been administered to Eswatini’s almost 1.4 million people.
Wang also hinted at displeasure that the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the European Union allowed Taiwan to join their initial statement in July expressing concern about the protests.
“The Taiwan region is part of China’s territory and the One-China principle is a universally recognized international norm of international relations,” he said. “Relevant countries and organizations” should “abide by their commitment and stop attempts to create ‘two Chinas’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan’ in the world.”
Communist Party of Swaziland spokesperson Pius Vilakati says he is hopeful things will change. “It is clear to everyone that there’s no more turning back in so far as Swaziland is concerned, he said. “The current protests can only intensify and Mswati will definitely be unseated. It’s only a matter of time.”