Monday, March 3, 2008

China and Taiwan in Africa: Who pays when Africa plays diplomatic musical chairs?

Are the Chinese trying to pull Burkina Faso and Gambia into their camp? It would seem so as mainland China (or Red China, for those with longer memories) has invited West Africa’s only two states with diplomatic relations with Chinese arch-rival Taiwan to the upcoming China-West Africa Summit.

With China’s well publicized incursion into Africa, the one big loser, of course, is Taiwan. China’s diplomatic maneuverings on the continent is just another play to limit Taiwan’s international space in an attempt to limit the country’s allies and coerce the island into reunification with the mainland, according to the proceedings of a discussion sponsored by Taiwan Thinktank after the country lost diplomatic relations with Chad in 2006.

Chinese policy in this aspect has been very successful during the past few years as Taiwan’s diplomatic relations around the world has been whittled down to only 23, including four in Africa: Swaziland, Sao Tome and Principe, Gambia and Burkina Faso, countries with a total population of less than 17 million (on a continent of 900 million people).

The summit will take place March 25-28 in Beijing. Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore has apparently declined the invitation. It is unclear whether Gambian President Yahya AJJ Jammeh or other officials will attend the summit. Jammeh refused to attend a meeting of West African Presidents held in Ouagadougou because of fears of over a presidential coup that would take place in his absence.

On January 15, Malawi became the latest African state to switch allegiances from Taiwan to China. Like other states officially opening diplomatic relations with China, Malawi must recognize there is one China in the world and Taiwan is an “inalienable part of China’s territory.” It also means that Malawi must cut off its 41-year relationship with Taiwan. In doing so, the Malawi government gave the Taiwanese 30 days to pack up and go home.

Caught in the crossfire
There’s another group losers in this game of diplomatic musical-chairs: poor people. If, say, Burkina Faso were to switch allegiances and join Team China, thus forcing the Taiwanese to pull out, it would put in jeopardy Taiwan’s numerous development projects.

I bring this up because over the weekend I visited the village of Bingo, where I saw a woman sporting a goiter the size of a baseball. She said that the Chinese clinic – meaning, Taiwanese clinic – will remove her goiter free of charge if she can only make the 60 km journey to get there. I have to wonder if the Chinese would keep afloat a clinic that had been run by Taiwanese doctors, and I came to the conclusion that it’s doubtful: They’d have different priorities and would most likely want to distance themselves from the former Taiwanese aid regime and all their shiny white trucks.

It’s easy for me to say African countries shouldn’t be so cavalier with diplomatic relations. But I understand how leaders can see the competition between the two Chinas as very similar to balancing benefactors during the Cold War: allow each side to wow a country to see what kind of money will be put on the table. (I have to think that China’s move into Africa is much more about securing resources for its future than putting the squeeze on Taiwan.)

The question we have to ask is who benefits when countries put themselves up for sale to the highest bidder? There’s more than a few half-witted cynics who would claim that a country’s leaders and elites may benefit from making the diplomatic change. (In fact, let’s hope the Malawian press is busy investigating possible kickbacks.) With all the largesse thrown around through a diplomatic relationship going through a honeymoon-period, others further down the economic ladder may also profit through jobs and greater development. However, if a country as generous as Taiwan is suddenly forced to leave a country, this bargain is not a complete win-win for everyone. Taiwan, of course, pays a price in the international arena. But, what will happen to the nice lady with the huge goiter?

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