Taiwan's last African ally eSwatini holds out despite overtures by China

The national flags of (from left) Belize, Taiwan, eSwatini, Haiti, Kiribati and Nauru fly outside the Diplomatic Quarter in Taipei on Aug 23, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MBABANE (REUTERS) - While China meets African leaders at a major summit in Beijing next week, the king of eSwatini - self-ruled Taiwan's last remaining ally on the continent - will be hosting thousands of people at a traditional Reed Dance ceremony.

By offering loans and upping diplomatic pressure, Beijing has flipped one African country at a time to its side, most recently Burkina Faso, in May. But eSwatini has stuck with Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a wayward province.

"They are our major partner," eSwatini Foreign Affairs Minister Mgwagwa Gamedze said, referring to Taiwan. "So they (China) must forget about having us in their stable."

Despite some domestic criticism that only the royal family benefits from ties to Taipei, eSwatini looks set stand by its old friend far away in East Asia.

eSwatini government spokesman Percy Simelane, who also speaks on behalf of the king, said Taiwan had been good to them.

"The people of eSwatini have been benefiting from the cordial relations existing between Taiwan since independence 50 years ago. The nation is benefiting and by extension as expected the leader benefits," he said.

"Taiwanese doctors continue to be pillars of our health system. To say it is the king alone who benefits is a projection of political bankruptcy on the part of the accuser," he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to use the Africa summit to offer a generous new round of aid and loans to the continent.

eSwatini's King Mswati III will be at home, hosting thousands of young Swazi women celebrating chastity in a lavish week-long ceremony for Africa's last absolute monarch.

"Everywhere in the world, culture is the soul of a nation, only a political imbecile would put a regional meeting above the soul of the nation," Mr Simelane said.

China has been upping the pressure on the country formerly known as Swaziland ahead of the summit, with a senior Chinese diplomat saying last week they expect them to come over to Beijing soon.

China has been chipping away at democratic Taiwan's remaining allies, now down to just 17, almost all poor countries in Central America and the Pacific.

Taiwan says relations are firm. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited in April.

The king has not commented on the diplomatic tussle. He went to Taiwan in June, attending military drills and the graduation of one of his sons, who had been studying there.

Since 1975, Taiwan has been spending big on projects, including a hospital, a rural electrification project and a new airport.

Critics say eSwatini's ties with Taiwan have benefited the king, who this year took delivery of an Airbus A340-300 from Taiwan's China Airlines, which was refurbished in Germany.

"Is the country really benefiting from an isolated state?" said political science lecturer Petros Magagula at the University of eSwatini, questioning how beneficial Taiwan was. "The leadership benefits from ties with Taiwan."

Asked about the suggestion that eSwatini would benefit from ties with China, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry told Reuters: "Taiwan has a deep, friendly and stable relationship with eSwatini...and the two countries' future cooperation prospects are optimistic.

"Taiwan's government will also help improve the lives of eSwatini's people in any ways that it can."

An economist who works for the government said eSwatini should align with China, the world's second biggest economy.

"I don't understand why are we stuck with Taiwan. A number of African countries that have joined China have seen their economies flourish," said the economist, who declined to be identified.

In July, China said it would invest US$14.7 billion (S$20.1 billion) in South Africa, which almost completely surrounds eSwatini.

"It benefits Mswati (the king) and the royal family financially," said Mr Njabulo Dlamini, a senior official of the Communist Party of Swaziland, referring to ties with Taiwan.

The party has been banned for being aligned to China.

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