King Mswati III, center, arrives Sunday at the annual “Umhlanga,” or Reed Dance ceremony, at the Swazi Royal Residence, in Mbabane, Swaziland, or eSwatini. (Yeshiel Panchia/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (YESHIEL PANCHIA/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Yeshiel Panchia/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)
As more than 40 African heads of state arrived at the China-Africa Cooperation summit Monday, one figure stood out: $60 billion. That’s how much additional funding Chinese President Xi Jinping promised the continent as the two-day summit got underway.

And all of Africa is competing for it — except for one country: Swaziland, an absolute monarchy that has in recent months renamed itself eSwatini.

The tiny kingdom was absent from this week’s Africa summit and appears to have no plans of attending anytime soon. It’s the last African nation that still recognizes Taiwan as an independent country, much to the dismay of the Chinese leadership in Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a wayward province.

Swaziland Foreign Minister Mgwagwa Gamedze recently reemphasized the kingdom’s commitment to Taiwan, warning China that Beijing “must not play mind games because our relationship with Taiwan is over 50 years so we will not dump them . . . We have no desire to change camps since Taiwan has been good to us.”

China has halfheartedly rejected Swaziland’s criticism, with Beijing’s Africa envoy, Xu Jinghu, recently saying that “on this issue we won’t exert any pressure. We’ll wait for the time to be right . . . I believe this day will come sooner or later.”

The kingdom is now the only remaining African ally of Taiwan and belongs to an increasingly small pool of supporters worldwide, as China has stepped up international pressure to switch allegiances. When dealing with China and Taiwan, foreign countries have to choose between the two, as Beijing is refusing to establish diplomatic ties with nations that recognize Taiwan’s independence.

China has pushed aggressively into Africa over the past 10 years, surpassing the United States in total trade volume in 2009 and funding with loans of more than $86 billion for infrastructure and other projects across the continent between 2000 and 2014 — even before the latest offer in Beijing that would significantly increase annual lending. In many cases, China has tied those investments to political commitments.

Beijing denies using financial aid to persuade nations to cut ties with Taiwan, but the Dominican Republic said in May that it switched allegiances to accept $3.1 billion in loans from China. Burkina Faso followed only days later. And after El Salvador severed ties to Taiwan in August, Taipei said the Central American country had previously asked for an “astronomical sum” in aid. More recently, major U.S. airlines bowed to Chinese demands to list Taiwan as part of China, amid the possibility of Chinese state-sanctioned boycotts.

So, why is the kingdom of Swaziland Taiwan’s last holdout in Africa? There’s mainly one reason: King Mswati III, who has ruled the country as an absolute monarch for more than 32 years and gained a reputation for enriching himself and his allies, even as his population suffers under some of the worst poverty rates in the world. Life expectancy in the kingdom has declined by 12 years over the past two decades. To escape, some Swaziland residents have fled to neighboring South Africa, where they work in mines, of which a growing number are funded by the Chinese.

While Chinese investment in Africa has triggered criticism over fears that Beijing may exploit the continent or woo nations into a “debt trap,” Mswati’s critics have wistfully observed how the funding has at least for now resulted in growth and employment elsewhere.

Taiwan may regularly accuse China of using money to purchase loyalty, but to preserve the few international friends it still has, it has similarly invested into local infrastructure projects or established scholarships in Swaziland. Mswati has returned the favor by visiting Taiwan 17 times so far. The Swaziland leader is now able to reach Taipei on a nonstop flight, after he expanded his collection of expensive luxury toys by purchasing a new Airbus A340-400 from Taiwan this summer.

In Swaziland, Taiwan may have found a loyal supporter — at least as long as it’s willing to back a leader with a long list of enemies and no interest in flying nonstop to Beijing.

 

Rick Noack is a foreign affairs reporter who covers Europe and international security issues from The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau. Previously, he worked for The Post from Washington as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow and from London.