By Bhaso Ndzendze
The Kingdom of Eswatini is the only African country to not have relations with China, as the country maintains its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Elsewhere (and in my master’s thesis), I noted that countries which affect a switch in their relations tend to then experience a surge in their exports to China once they do, as they enter politically-lubricated economic relations with the PRC. However, most countries to switch towards the PRC have been democracies, which I later hypothesised to be as a result of domestic audience pressures to economically perform. This likely requires a reconsideration of economic ties, and highlights the salience of the alternative (i.e., China) and leads to a notice of the potential opportunity cost.
This may be an explanation for Eswatini’s stance. Over the past seven years, Eswatini-China trade has been decidedly lopsided towards China for the past five (Figure 1 above).
Thus, Eswatini’s decisively pro-Taiwan stance (being the only country in Africa to have never had relations with the mainland), may be a result of the regime’s imperviousness to popular pressures to economically perform. “Since at least 2017 public sector workers and unions have regularly clashed with eSwatini police during protests demanding higher wages, reforms to the state pension fund and calls for great political freedoms,” reported Reuters in late November 2019. Figure 2 may reinforce this, as it demonstrates declining imports of eSwatini goods by Taiwan.
As established, bowing to economic pressures has usually meant switching to the economically larger mainland for other countries on the continent. This was implied in former Chinese ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian’s letter to the Eswatini government; according to the document Eswatini citizens wishing to travel to China were forced to apply for visas at a single point: the Chinese embassy in Pretoria.
Nevertheless, the sudden dip from US$46.11 million in 2014 to only US$289,000 in 2015, may indicate political pressure, as the latter was a FOCAC year. But this may be an incongruent hypothesis, as in the subsequent pre-FOCAC and FOCAC year, 2017 and 2018, Chinese imports from Eswatini increased from $3.25 million to $27.46 million. But this subsequently dropped to $766,000 the next year (2019). Could this indicate a change of tact — whereby China attempts to lure the kingdom through increased imports of its goods? We can only speculate, but recent calls by the mainland for the country to drop Taiwan indicate that Eswatini is not completely off China’s radar. Even more so, since cutting off trade has been used as a threat — with China seemingly nonchalant about its own exports to the kingdom ($42.46 million must be a drop in the ocean for a $13-trillion economy).
Eswatini’s own production factors may be the larger explanatory factor. Given the volatility in its exports to China and stability in China’s exports to its market and the fact that China’s leadership has been the same personnel over the same period, this demonstrates that the politics may not be the larger factor.