JOHANNESBURG - Taiwan's new president makes her first trip to Africa this week to visit one of the island's two remaining allies on the continent. Support for Taiwan has diminished in Africa over the past decade, as billions of dollars in Chinese investment have flowed into the continent.
But the tiny African kingdom of Swaziland says it welcomes Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, as she makes her first visit to the landlocked kingdom that is one of Taiwan's oldest allies.
Jennifer Neves, Swaziland's undersecretary for international cooperation in the foreign ministry, spoke to VOA on Tuesday as she headed to the airport to receive Tsai for the four-day visit.
Taiwan, she said, has long funded a range of agricultural, industrial and vocational programs in Swaziland.
"For 50 years, our relationship has been characterized by principled engagement, a deep sense of mutual respect, fraternity and loyalty," Neves said. "And these are all attributes that successive heads of state of our kingdom value in our cosmetic and popular global politics."
Pressure to abandon Taiwan
China claims Taiwan as its own and has, in recent years, ramped up pressure on African nations to drop their ties with Taiwan, as Taiwan has moved toward seeking formal independence from China.
Swaziland, which has some 1.3 million people and is surrounded on all sides by South Africa or Mozambique, is Africa's only absolute monarchy. The nation is technically a democracy, but political parties are banned and King Mswati III is the top executive who rules for life.
Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher on China-Africa issues at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says China has, in recent years, pressured some half-dozen African nations to drop Taiwan. Most recently, Sao Tome and Principe cut ties in 2016.
As the only two holdouts in Africa, he says, Swaziland and Burkina Faso face immense pressure as well.
"Swaziland is small, but at the same time, China has worked hard to set up relationships with other small and also very poor countries," he told VOA. "So, for example, Sao Tome and Principe are also very small and economically also very weak, but China put in a lot of work to make friends with them. So I think, you know, there's a whole lot of political symbolism involved."
Taiwan, too, he says, needs every relationship it can get.
"From Taiwan's side, I think, a lot of it has to do with symbolism, especially for someone like Tsai Ing-wen, whose party is a pro-independence party, there is a lot of political symbolism riding on this idea that Taiwan isn't just ignored and isolated in the world, that it functions as an actual country," he said. "And for that, having diplomatic relationships is crucial."