What you need to know
Taiwan lost one sub-Saharan African ally in 2018, but it's gripping tightly onto another.
By Megan Conville
The continual diplomatic isolation of Taiwan has seen the island reduced to one Sub-Saharan African ally: eSwatini, formally known as Swaziland. The most recent loss of an ally came with a shift from Burkina Faso on the state’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Burkina Faso turned down economic inducements from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as recently as January of 2017 but, ultimately, moved to become an ally of the PRC in May 2018. A comparison of the potential sources of Burkina Faso’s negative relationship and eSwatini’s positive relationship with Taiwan can lend insight into the future success or failure of Taiwan’s diplomatic relations.
This article questions the role of evaluating what contributes to a small state extending official diplomatic relations. It is undeniable that diplomatic recognition can assist with a state’s role in social and economic interaction on a global scale. Taiwan has a unique diplomatic standing, as it has been party to yo-yo diplomacy for over fifty years – states will officially recognize and de-recognize Taiwan, and even sometimes re-recognize it. Taiwan then has an additional unique quality to its diplomatic recognition, as a shift in official diplomatic relations often correlates to a state choosing to recognize the PRC in an official capacity.
The question stands: What factors contribute to official diplomatic recognition? The argument that choosing to recognize the PRC or Taiwan due to similar political and ideological structures appears to be largely outdated since the Cold War ended. Though politics plays a marginal role, the overarching contributor to diplomatic recognition seems to be based on economics. This conclusion offers itself to the current framework in which to analyze the relationship between economic assistance and diplomatic recognition.
Burkina-Faso and Taiwan have had a largely rocky relationship, with waves of recognition and de-recognition, an example of yo-yo diplomacy. In 1961, Upper Volta, as Burkina Faso was then known, officially recognized Taiwan due to its leader’s dislike of communist ideology. In 1973, the PRC offered economic assistance to help with relief from Burkina Faso’s famine and simultaneous measles outbreak, and Burkina Faso turned to recognize the PRC in an official capacity. Around twenty years later, in 1994, Burkina Faso once again re-recognized Taiwan when the island approached Burkina Faso with a $50 million payment while Burkina Faso was amid a devaluation crisis. In the most recent move, Burkina Faso once again broke ties with Taiwan to recognize the PRC. The PRC had extended US$44 million for the G5 Sahel Force in Burkina Faso, which is aimed to preventing further terrorist attacks.
eSwatini, on the other hand, has been unique in that it never recognized the PRC in an official diplomatic relationship. When eSwatini, then called Swaziland, became independent in 1968, it experienced political isolation. Taiwan extended a diplomatic hand to the Sub-Saharan African nation and has since maintained ties. Though there has been internal dispute regarding the continued choice to maintain official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the current monarch does not show signs of budging.
Given the framework in which it was found that economic assistance is a vital player in diplomatic recognition, it may be assumed that Burkina Faso and eSwatini have chosen their current diplomatic allies based largely on economics. However, Taiwan has not been shy in extending substantial foreign aid to Burkina Faso, which greatly eliminates the notion that foreign aid alone was the over-arching decision in switch diplomatic recognition. In the same vein, the PRC has offered substantial economic incentives to develop Sub-Saharan Africa, which eSwatini could participate in if diplomatic recognition of the PRC is established. This also eliminates foreign aid as a top reasoning for maintaining or establishing diplomatic relations.
Burkina Faso’s switch in diplomatic recognition was, in part, due to regional pressure. The country has seen an increase in terrorist attacks, and so the 53 Sahel Joint Force was created amongst five nations in the region in order to provide increased defense: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The PRC had produced significant financial assistance in the establishment of this joint force but stated a hesitation to extend this offer due to Burkina Faso’s lack of recognition of the PRC. It can be considered that Burkina Faso establishing diplomatic relations in 2018 with the PRC was due to regional pressure and security, two factors that have not been previously considered.
In eSwatini’s case, the country has been namely excluded from analyses of factors that may contribute to diplomatic recognition due to its small size. However, with Taiwan’s number of official diplomatic allies decreasing, it is important to re-introduce eSwatini into the equation. With eSwatini’s King Mswati III maintaining ties to the PRC despite calls from domestic groups, the role of internal politics must be noted. This consideration incorporates not only a correlation to developed ideology, but also a question of political structure.
Given these factors of regional pressure, security, and internal political structure, it is important to re-evaluate the framework that gauges the role of diplomatic relations for the future of Taiwanese foreign policy. Previous research has shown that economic assistance plays a large role in small-state diplomacy, but this framework appears to be outdated in how Taiwan’s diplomatic relations are currently shifting.
Megan Conville is a MSc Global Economic Governance and Policy student at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Insight, the online magazine of the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Program.
TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall@TheNewsLens
If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more like it in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.