The New Scramble

By Justin McDonnell9.12.2013Economics, Global Policy

Africa’s economic growth has sparked a fierce battle for influence between archenemies.

China’s going-out engagement is helping shape the future of a resurgent continent. As Africa’s biggest trading partner and creditor, China has become one of Africa’s major economic influences. More than a million Chinese have moved to Africa over the last decade devoted to growth and expansion.

Railway projects in Kenya, to the construction of the African Union in Addis Ababa, new schools and hospitals in Angola, and energy extraction operations in Tanzania, China’s burgeoning presence can be felt all across the continent. Given China’s visible economic impact and the extraordinary opportunities they are bringing with them to enhance employment, technology, and infrastructure, abandoning Taiwan is an increasingly enticing prospect for many African countries.

Battling for recognition in Africa

Taiwan is not widely recognized as an independent state and its international situation is becoming dire. Given Gambia’s recent announcement of breaking off diplomatic ties, Taiwan’s increasing marginalization in Africa is a great cause of concern. The last country to break ties with Taiwan was another African nation, Malawi in 2008. There are only a few African countries that still recognize a self-ruled Taiwan: Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Interestingly, Gambia isn’t the only African nation that has recently announced a change in its diplomatic relationship with China. São Tomé and Principe is collaborating with China to open a trade mission to promote a new cooperation deal, 16 years after relations were broken off between the two nations. Prime minister Gabriel Arcanjo Ferreira assured its ally that it would not affect the country’s relationship with Taiwan but there is still widespread speculation.

Africa was once a diplomatic battleground for both China and Taiwan. But since China’s successful push to curtail Taiwan’s diplomatic influence in the region, those days seem long gone.

Burkina Faso, Swaziland, and São Tomé and Principe might not be the kind of allies a democratic Taiwan would hope for, but the isolated island doesn’t have the leverage to be selective. The majority of Taiwan’s remaining 22 allies are located in the Global South. Taiwan needs to maintain its three allies in Africa, so not to affect the development of cross-strait relations and Beijing’s push to reunify the country.

Taiwan has provided substantial support to maintain ties with its allies. São Tomé and Principe and Taiwan enjoy bilateral cooperation projects in various industries as well as programs to fight malaria. In Burkina Faso, Taiwan is a major stakeholder in their cotton export industry, and also provides millions in foreign aid annually. In Swaziland, Taiwan’s development projects and investments over time have been estimated at roughly US $90 million.

It’s practically impossible for Taiwan’s 23 million people to engage with China in dollar diplomacy to retain its diplomatic allies. But Taiwan might not have to. The question how Taiwan stays afloat still largely relies on how China’s narrative unfolds in the region.

Chinese companies have pumped billions into Africa but it hasn’t always been a win-win situation. In Zambia, we saw corruption and labor abuses as part of the government’s lucrative deals with Chinese managers. President Michael Sata won elections in 2011 in large part because of anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. It also spread to other segments of the continent. Africans have also complained of the unequal trade imbalance, Chinese control of local African industries, and a growing sentiment that China is only in the region to exploit resources.

Not China’s exclusive region

Chinese managers and workers in today’s African colonies evoke memories of cantonments of British colonial India. If China can’t properly mend its image as an impending imperialist presence in the region, Taiwan’s few yet important remaining allies will reaffirm their ties with the small island. China’s relationship with African nations is not set in stone. Like all relationships, they can either strengthen or falter. Africa is not China’s exclusive region just yet.

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