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International relations

China verges on luring all of Africa away from Taiwan

Beijing uses economic leverage to cultivate allies against American pressure

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Swaziland's King Mswati III in 2015. The monarchy is now Taiwan's last formal diplomatic partner in Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Swaziland's King Mswati III in 2015. The country now known as eSwatini has become Taiwan's last formal diplomatic partner in Africa.   © Reuters

BEIJING/TAIPEI -- China's diplomatic offensive to flip the final African countries holding formal ties with Taiwan over to the mainland's side is nearly complete, as the Asian power wields economic might to expand its influence on the continent amid trade and security pressure from the U.S.

The Chinese government sees special significance in a Beijing summit with African leaders set for September alongside the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. If China can bring the last holdout, Swaziland -- recently renamed eSwatini -- into its corner, it will go into the meeting having diplomatically conquered the continent, so to speak.

Beijing is sparing no effort to prepare for the summit, Wang Yi, China's state councilor and foreign minister, said June 4 while visiting South Africa. He expressed optimism that gathering leaders from around Africa would help the all-fronts strategic partnership between China and the continent reach new heights.

China has gradually forged deeper relationships with African countries through the ministerial conference, held every three years. Beijing first organized the forum in 2000.

In May, the West African nation of Burkina Faso froze out Taiwan and formed ties with mainland China, leaving Swaziland as the last of Africa's 54 countries -- and one of just 18 worldwide -- to maintain formal relations with the island.

Leaders of China's ruling Communist Party are taking turns visiting African nations. Li Zhanshu -- the party's third-ranking official, a close aide to President Xi Jinping and chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee -- visited Ethiopia, Mozambique and Namibia in May. Wang Yang, the party's No. 4 and the chair of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference advisory body, is touring the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya from June 11 to June 20.

China's economic power figures heavily into the effort. The nation of Sao Tome and Principe severed ties with Taiwan at the end of 2016 after Taipei reportedly declined to provide a $210 million aid package. Days later, the island country off Africa's western coast restored relations with China after a 19-year break.

Burkina Faso has received at least $1.5 billion in aid from China since last year, according to Taiwanese newspaper Liberty Times. China also reportedly offered the country support in building a rail link to the capital of neighboring Ghana, a move seen as aimed at pressuring Burkina Faso to switch sides.

In late May, central bank and government officials from a number of African countries discussed the possibility of making the yuan a reserve currency. One attendee at the forum in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, said adopting the yuan would be advantageous given China's status as an important trading partner to many African nations, according to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency.

China's trade with African countries reached $170 billion last year, up 130% from a decade earlier. Yuan-denominated trade has increased proportionally as well. China's proposals for more infrastructure investments linked to its Belt and Road Initiative also has expanded the country's profile in Africa.

Other factors draw African nations toward China as well. Beijing's model of using authoritarian methods to achieve economic growth can look appealing amid American and European pressure toward democracy.

Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa, visiting China in April, praised his powerful counterpart's constitutionally enshrined "Xi Jinping Thought" and said it inspired him to develop a uniquely Zimbabwean societal philosophy, according to the English-language state news outlet China Daily.

Mnangagwa took power after President Robert Mugabe stepped down in November, ending 37 years of autocratic rule. Some hoped Mnangagwa would be a force for democracy, but he quickly proved to lean more toward China and heavy-handed rule.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is applying pressure on China not only involving trade, including with Friday's announcement of 25% tariffs on $50 billion worth of imports, but on security matters related to Taiwan and the South China Sea. The issue of Taiwan's sovereignty in particular is a line on which Beijing refuses to yield.

Nevertheless, at a security summit in Singapore in early June, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis inflamed Beijing by saying that the U.S. was committed to continue supplying Taiwan with the arms it needs.

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