China offered Burkina Faso almost four times its GDP to switch camps and recognize Beijing. They said no. Discover the strange stories behind the country that dares to say no to China in 2018.
On a red dirt road in a rural West African village, a young man is standing on the street corner, entertaining the local children with magic tricks. The children’s squeals of glee attract others, and soon villagers young and old are enjoying the man’s antics. The man’s strange talents only accentuate his exotic nature, for he is not a resident of the village. Nor is he a resident of the country, or even the continent: Huang Yu-yen is a doctor from Taipei. Huang is part of a medical team providing essential care to rural residents in landlocked Burkina Faso.
His impromptu show on a dusty street corner highlights his other fascination - magic. Huang’s optimistic attitude, energy and fondness for whimsy make him appear like a Taiwanese Patch Adams; seeking to provide his patients with smiles as well as medical care. “Magic is an art that can entertain people and make them forget their pains and troubles,” explains Huang in a 2012 interview. “It can also draw two complete strangers into a relationship.”
Huang’s presence (and that of other Taiwanese) in Burkina Faso is, in itself, somewhat fantastical, as the landlocked country is just one of two African countries (the other being Swaziland) that still recognize Taiwan. In addition, the two countries are about as far removed from one another as they could be: Huang had to fly for 31 hours with transfers in Bangkok, Amsterdam and Paris in order to reach his destination.
Most people have never heard of Burkina Faso, and indeed the landlocked country of some 20 million is one of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, ranking 184th out of 188 on the Human Development Index (HDI). In a time when almost all countries have abandoned Taiwan in favour of China, Burkina Faso remains firm in its support: the country’s capital - Ouagadougou - and Taipei even became sister cities in 2008. Not that Beijing has failed to try to entice the country over to its side. “We get ridiculous proposals telling us ‘if you sign with Beijing we’ll offer you $50 billion or even more,’” remarks Foreign Minister Alpha Barry.
To put this in perspective, Burkina Faso’s entire GDP is only $14 billion, according to 2018 estimates. “Burkina Faso, a small and poor country, is no Senegal or even Chad or Niger. It has not much to offer to the PRC apart from cotton and gold, both of which it can buy [elsewhere],” explains Jean-Pierre Cabestan, department head of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. This only highlights the lengths to which China is willing to go to win over Taiwan's remaining allies.
In an era in which China exercises vast influence in Africa, underwritten by the hundreds of billions it has poured into the continent, Burkina Faso’s intransigence in the face of China’s money tsunami is striking. This refusal is in part due Burkina Faso’s satisfaction with existing ties with Taiwan, as well as a refusal to have the nation’s sovereignty be dictated by the highest bidder. “If you are a small [African country] and you have Taiwan as your ally, Taiwan treats you as a princess really, and you get a lot of benefits from it,” explains Colin Alexander, lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. “If you move over to China,” Alexander continues, “you’re just another country that recognizes China.”
The bizarre thing is that Burkina Faso once was just another country recognizing China, having switched its allegiance to the mainland in 1973, only to switch back to Taiwan in 1994. Indeed, it is not alone when it comes to such diplomatic flip-flops, as nine African countries have recognized Taiwan more than once, two of which - the Central African Republic (CAR) and Liberia - have switched between Beijing and Taipei three times. Specifically, the CAR recognized Taiwan from 1962-1964, 1968-1976, and 1981-1998, and Beijing during the remaining years. Liberia also underwent a similar series of changes, recognizing Taiwan from 1957-1977, 1989-1993, and 1997-2003.
The legacy of China's civil war lives on in Africa
Tensions between Taiwan and Beijing are the result of the unfinished business of the Chinese Civil War. Following the Communist victory and creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan, creating a government in exile and maintaining its claim as the only legitimate government of China. Both the governments in Beijing and Taipei claimed to rule all of China, and post-war anti-Communist sentiment saw many countries support this fiction, despite the PRC controlling 99 percent of the country.
The Nationalist government had played an important role in defeating Japan, and as such the other victorious Allies were reluctant to abandon their wartime ally. Until 1971, the government in Taiwan was recognized by the majority of the international community and the UN as the sole representative for China. This changed in 1971, as the growing number of newly independent countries swelling the ranks of the UN made preventing the PRC’s efforts for recognition more difficult. Consequently, the UN switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and transferred control of China’s seat on the United Nations Security Council to the PRC.
This move was not accepted by all, including the United States, and many countries continued to recognize Taiwan, although this number quickly dwindled following the UN’s 1971 decision. The most important change post-1971 came in 1979 when the United States normalized relations with the PRC and withdrew recognition of Taiwan, removing Taipei’s last advocate on the Security Council.
Nevertheless, various countries in Oceania, Africa and Latin America continued to recognize Taiwan during the following decades, often due to favourable aid packages from Taipei as well as ideological reasons. By maintaining international recognition among some states, Taiwan can maintain the narrative that it is an independent government, and not merely a renegade province as characterized by Beijing.
Enter Dollar Diplomacy
Taiwan’s friends list is being gradually eroded by Beijing as the penalty for not recognizing the PRC means missing out on Chinese investment and aid. For decades this was not an issue, as Taiwan’s economy was consistently equivalent to or larger than China's. China’s adoption of capitalism and rapid economic rise now allows it to outspend Taiwan with ease.
In the African context this means that countries which recognize Taiwan cannot access the hundreds of billions of investment, aid, and debt relief that China is pumping into the continent due to Beijing’s insistence on a ‘One China’ policy. By the end of the Cold War, Taiwan had just three African allies, and the government decided to make a concerted effort to win back supporters on the continent. This so called ‘Dollar Diplomacy’ was effectively an incentive program to prompt African nations to switch recognition back to Taiwan. By the late the 1990s this effort had reaped significant rewards; increasing the number of African countries recognizing Taiwan from three in 1988 to nine by 1998.
In response, China has engaged in its own campaign of dollar diplomacy to counter Taiwan’s influence on the continent, a feat made easier as China’s economy swelled to twenty times that of Taiwan’s. Pressure and incentives from China saw the number of African countries recognizing Taiwan fall to five in 2008, and to just two by 2018.
In 2017, Taiwan won a case in a U.S court against the governments of the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a case against Guinea-Bissau is still pending). Taiwan’s state-run Export-Import Bank won $298 million in legal claims for non-payment of loans and for accepting Taiwanese aid and then dropping recognition of the country in favour of Beijing.
The court case can be seen as a warning to other nations considering switching their allegiance, many of whom have long benefited from Taiwan’s largesse. “It is not surprising that Taiwan would seek repayment from nations that switched allegiance,” notes Robert Manning, of the Atlantic Council think-tank. “It is in part about getting their money back, but in no small part a bit of retaliation [as well].”
China’s efforts to counter Taiwan in Africa have mirrored the ebb and flow in tensions between the two governments. For instance, China increased its campaign in Africa from 2000-2008, during the rule of Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progress Party (DPP). Conversely, China scaled back its efforts to erode Taiwan’s international recognition during the government of President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), whose KMT government was seen as more pro-China than the DPP. Ma’s efforts to foster closer collaboration with Beijing and ease cross-strait tensions were in turn reciprocated by the PRC.
For instance, during Ma’s tenure both Gambia and El Salvador attempted to recognize the PRC, but both were rebuffed by Beijing, so as to spare Ma any embarrassment which could reduce his political capital at home. Beijing’s pragmatic approach during this time highlights how, despite China’s strong rhetoric, concerns about Taiwan’s international presence take a back seat to machinations closer to home.
One down: Talking to Trump cost Taiwan in Africa
Unfortunately for China, the DPP defeated the KMT in the 2016 presidential election, with Tsai Ing-wen becoming president in the same year. Tsai’s wariness of China, combined with her insistence that Taiwan is de facto independent has angered Beijing. Moreover, Tsai’s call congratulating President Trump on his election was seen as a major breach of protocol by China, as the incident marked the first time in almost forty years that the leader of Taiwan had spoken to the President of the United States.
China’s low opinion of Tsai and the DPP was only further entrenched by this call, and Beijing redoubled its efforts to isolate Taiwan. As a result, between Tsai’s call and a planned trip to visit Taiwanese allies abroad, Sao Tome & Principe switched its recognition to the PRC. Similarly, Gambia ceased recognizing Taiwan in 1974, only to do so again from 1994 to 2013 after the coup and subsequent rule of Yahya Jammeh. Jammeh fell out with Taiwan after Taipei refused to wire aid directly to him, instead of the government. China ignored Gambia’s offer of recognition for three years during Ma’s tenure: two months after Tsai was elected, Beijing officially accepted.
The timing of these switches is no coincidence, and can be seen as punishment for Tsai’s actions. “I think [Sao Tome & Principe’s switch] might trigger a domino effect,” argues Richard W. X. Hu, professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong. “[As China is] increasingly determined to squeeze Taipei’s international space,” in response to Tsai’s election.
The switch of one of Taiwan’s longest allies, Panama, to Beijing in 2017 only underlines this point. Speaking on these recent defections, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Taiwan’s remaining allies to recognize the “irresistible trend” and acknowledge that it is in their best interests to ditch Taiwan and adhere to Beijing’s One China policy. This is the context in which Taiwan’s relationship with Burkina Faso must be approached.
We are focusing on Burkina Faso for several reasons. Firstly, the country constitutes the most populous nation which still recognizes Taiwan. Furthermore, Burkina Faso effectively represents Taiwan’s last foothold in Africa. While Swaziland also recognizes Taiwan, the tiny country of just over a million people is an absolute monarchy, which has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986.
Swaziland is one of the few countries to never have wavered in its support for Taiwan, but given the nature of its government this makes the country less interesting when looking at Taipei’s African connections. Moreover, as long as Taiwan continues to remain on good terms with the Swazi monarch and his successors, there is little reason to suspect that the tiny African country will change its allegiance. Swaziland’s small size also benefits Taiwan in that its smaller needs negate the comparative advantage Beijing enjoys due to its deep pockets and giant economy. In a smaller arena, China cannot bring its billions to bear in such an overwhelming manner as in other larger countries, providing Taiwan with a more even playing field.
Nevertheless, Taiwan does not consider Swaziland to be any less important than Burkina Faso, as demonstrated by the fact that Swaziland will be the destination for Tsai’s first Africa trip since taking office. The trip has been organized to celebrate fifty years of ties between the two countries, as well as Swaziland’s fiftieth anniversary of independence, and King Mswati’s fiftieth birthday. In response, China announced impromptu naval exercises scheduled for when Tsai is overseas. The timing of China’s first live fire naval drill in the Strait of Taiwan in three years should not come as a surprise.
“The exercise is going to take place when Tsai, who is also Taiwan’s commander-in-chief, is out of the office on an overseas trip,” notes Huang Chieh-cheng, international relations professor at Tamkang University. As with the fallout surrounding Tsai’s aforementioned call with Trump, China is responding with various punishments and provocations in response to her decisions as president.
Swaziland’s monarchy largely alleviates concerns about the future of governance in the country, as the monarch holds ultimate power. Conversely, Burkina Faso has only recently begun a transition to democracy, and Taiwan is aware that regime change presents one of the greatest dangers to continued recognition. The numerous flip-flops on the China-Taiwan issue among African countries can in large part - together with the impact of dollar diplomacy - be attributed to the instability of African regimes and the various coups which have become commonplace since decolonization
Regime change makes for fickle friends
During the Cold War, coups and revolutions by Communist other leftist elements saw various African countries revoke their recognition of Taiwan in favour of Beijing. Similarly, the rise of anti-communist and Western aligned regimes on the continent led some states to reverse their diplomatic ties once again. Taiwan is keenly aware of the risks surrounding regime change, as it lost Niger and Liberia in 1996 and 2003 respectively, following changes in leadership.
Burkina Faso recognized Taiwan from 1961 until 1973, when President Sangoulé Lamizana switched sides in the wake of the 1971 UN decision. In 1987, a coup against then president, Thomas Sankara put Blaise Compaoré in power, who re-established ties with Taiwan in 1994. Compaoré likely succumbed to the charms of Taiwan’s dollar diplomacy, rather than any deeply held conviction, given that it took him seven years to re-establish ties.
An interesting element in this diplomatic about-face is the role of Taiwanese aid in winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Burkinabe. For example, Taiwan’s successful irrigation project (begun in 1967) on the Kou River was well received by local farmers, but work was halted in 1973 after Burkina Faso recognized China.
Speaking about Burkina Faso’s 1994 recognition of Taiwan, Pai-po Lee, Taiwan’s deputy secretary-general for International Cooperation and Development, maintained that people power played an important role in changing the government’s mind. “[The impetus to switch back came] from the Burkina Faso people. To think about the 1967 [project] in Kou River [...] they had quite a good memory of that...so, the people urged the government to restore the relations with Taiwan. So that pressure comes from the people. [sic]”
Whether or not such a popular movement really managed to sway an authoritarian regime is unknown, but Compaoré soon became one of Taiwan’s staunchest partners, visiting the island nation ten times, most recently in 2014, only shortly before being forced to resign. President Ma returned the favour in 2012 and 2014.
Compaoré’s ousting following his efforts to extend his mandate by amending the constitution put the question of Taiwan’s recognition in question. Whereas Taiwanese officials expressed confidence that the new government would continue to support Taipei, uncertainty remains Following another failed coup, Burkina Faso slowly began a tentative transition to democracy in 2015. Fortunately for Taiwan, Roch March Christian Kaboré won with 53.5 percent of the vote.
Kaboré has continued to recognize Taiwan, refusing China’s $50 billion offer and declining an invitation to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2015. Had Kaboré not won, things may have look very different for Taiwan. This is because the runner-up in the 2015 election - Zéphirin Bagré - had openly campaigned for normalizing relations with Beijing. Moreover, in the wake of the election, diplomatic sources demonstrated that Bagré’s election campaign had received $4.6 million from China in support of his pro-Beijing stance.
Despite Kaboré’s victory, the future of Burkinabe-Taiwanese relations remains uncertain. Firstly, while academics and elites maintain pro-Taiwan sentiments, or at least wariness about recognizing the PRC, the country’s business community is strongly in favour of normalizing ties with Beijing, as it is currently excluded from lucrative Chinese investment and trade opportunities. Moreover, Kaboré’s Mouvement du Peuple pour le Progrés (MPP) is nine seats short of an absolute majority. The government has thus been forced to enter a coalition with other parties, notably the Union pour la Renaissance / Parti sankariste (UNIR/PS) which is more inclined to recognize the PRC.
Dealing with the international ramifications of recognizing Taiwan is one thing, something which already isolated Burkina Faso can contend with, especially given Taipei’s generous largesse. It is an altogether different matter when concerns about domestic political stability come into play. Kaboré may have opted to back Taiwan, but if doing so means jeopardizing his fragile coalition government, Taiwan may fall victim to political expediency.
In many ways, Taiwan’s continuing presence in Burkina Faso is something of a magic trick. As just one of Taiwan’s two remaining allies in Africa, Burkina Faso continues to rebuff China’s advances. Despite being presented with eye-watering amounts of money should the country switch its allegiance to Beijing, Burkina Faso remains steadfast. This has not always been the case, as the country did drop its recognition of Taiwan (as did many others) in the early 1970s following the UN’s decision to recognize the PRC.
With its list of friends dwindling fast, Taiwan emerged from the Cold War with but a handful of contacts in Africa. Nevertheless, Taipei’s use of dollar diplomacy in the 1990s led to something of a resurgence, a trend which irked China, leading to counter-measures. Burkina Faso also acts as a prime example of the various trends shaping the recognition of Taiwan in Africa. For instance, the country (a dollar diplomacy convert) returned to Taiwan’s camp in 1994, and its turbulent politics also highlights the risks facing Taipei.
Specifically, the continent’s various regime changes and coups - and the strong men which they elevate to power - have whittled away at Taiwan’s friends list. Decades spent cultivating close relations with various authoritarian leaders is lost overnight, as often Taiwan’s accumulated goodwill only extends as far as the dictator in question. Ascendent political opponents seeking a break from the past often ditched Taiwan to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, as well as prompt China to open its deep pockets.
Taiwan may treat Burkina Faso like a princess, but it’s unclear whether the fairy tale will have a happy ending.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.