In Africa, China’s gain is Taiwan’s loss
Nigeria, eyeing infrastructure investment, is latest country to embrace Beijing; Taiwanese trade office cut to ‘skeleton staff’
It was a dramatic lesson in China’s growing financial muscle. As a Chinese official dangled the possible reward of $40-billion (U.S.) in desperately needed investments, Nigeria this week hastily ordered the shutdown of a trade office by China’s rival, Taiwan.
The result is another diplomatic blow to Taiwan and another victory for Beijing as it becomes increasingly assertive on the world stage, from the South China Sea to the western coast of Africa.
The Chinese diplomatic offensive has risen sharply since last year, when the independenceminded Democratic Progressive Party emerged victorious in Taiwan’s election. Since then, Beijing has lured two more African countries away from Taiwan’s embrace, while also battling to weaken Taiwan’s links to individual African politicians.
The campaign has left Taiwan more isolated in the world, with only 21 countries now recognizing its independence. It has also signalled to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump that the Chinese government is willing to play hardball in any fight over trade or security issues.
In the 12 months since the Taiwanese election, China has forged new links with two African nations – Gambia and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe – that had previously recognized Taiwan. This has left Taiwan with just two African diplomatic partners: Swaziland and Burkina Faso.
Equally significant is China’s mounting influence over Africa’s two biggest economies, South Africa and Nigeria. The governments of both countries have moved to cut back Taiwan’s links to their countries in recent days.
When the mayor of South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, travelled to Taiwan on an investment mission last month, Beijing protested furiously – and South Africa’s ruling party launched a similarly ferocious attack on the mayor, Solly Msimanga, who belongs to an opposition party.
The ruling party, the African National Congress, aggressively backed the Chinese position on Taiwan, accusing Mr. Msimanga of “treason” and “transgressing the constitution” and even threatening to strip him of his diplomatic passport.
Mr. Msimanga shot back by observing that the ANC government has its own trade office in Taipei. But the harsh attack on the mayor was a sign of China’s success in cultivating support from the ANC, which often praises Beijing as a political and economic model for South Africa. The ANC has focused much of its economic strategy on closer links to China as a source of investment and trade.
China’s biggest Africa victory, however, was its success in forcing the closing of Taiwan’s office in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, this week.
With oil prices low, Nigeria’s economy has sunk into a reces- sion. Its government has promised to lift the country out of recession with a massive program of spending on infrastructure projects, but it has struggled to find financing for the projects. And then China hinted that it might provide up to $40-billion in investments in the Nigerian projects.
Officially, there was no quid pro quo. But the Nigerian government was in dire need of foreign funding, and it was fully aware of Beijing’s demands. And so, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Abuja this week, Nigeria responded with swift action against Taiwan.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama announced on Wednesday that he had ordered Taiwan to shut down its trade office in Abuja and relocate it to Lagos, far to the south. The office will be limited to a “skeleton staff,” he told the state news agency, NAN.
The move is significant because it deprives Taiwan of any official representatives in Nigeria’s capital, where they could lobby Nigeria’s top officials.
And by limiting Taiwan to a “skeleton staff,” Nigeria is ensuring that Taiwan has a minimal presence in Africa’s most populous country. This would suit Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is merely a renegade province.
Taiwan immediately protested the Nigerian move. “The foreign ministry seriously objects and condemns the unreasonable actions by the Nigerian government,” a statement said.
But the moves were just one of many recent signs that China won’t back down from a scrap with Mr. Trump, who angered Beijing by taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president last month.
In recent weeks, China has sent a nuclear-armed bomber over a disputed boundary in the South China Sea, sent an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, and continued its buildup on disputed islands and atolls in the South China Sea.