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African Democratisation and the One China Policy

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Democracy in Africa is among the most contentious issues in the continent’s relationship with China. On one hand, many reform-minded scholars, international organisations, and western governments criticise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for its indifference to the unsatisfactory levels of democracy within many of the African states it deals with. On the other hand, Rich and Banerjee (2015), who carried out a study seeking to identify variables which led African states to have relations with the PRC over Taiwan/Republic of China (ROC) and vice versa, found out that in the continent, Taiwan tended to be more recognised by states that were non-democratic. The paper does not elaborate on why, however; noting only a positive correlation. What mechanisms may underline such a phenomenon? Subsequent literature has likewise not answered this and has thus far placed much emphasis on the economic factors; namely, that African countries have recognised China because of its economic strengths and gains to be made from increased trade with it. As it stands, only a single state recognises Taiwan on the continent. However, the continent has had domestic governance changes that began in the 1990s – the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of democratisation (Huntington, 1991: 12) – and culminated in the 2000s, which merit analysis alongside the One China issue in Africa.

In light of this, the present article notes a causal interaction among the three notable trends of the late 1990s that culminated in the 2000s whose interconnectedness has thus far been underexplored: the third wave of democratisation, which also saw the emergence of multiparty politics in many countries in Africa, the economic rise of China, and the decline of Taiwanese recognition in the continent. The article proposes that the process of democratisation, as well as regime change in a given state, is a direct determinant of the recognition of China in the twenty-first century; with those now in power expecting that the new relations with China will lead to increased trade and reap domestic electoral dividends (e.g., Liberia, Gambia, and Burkina Faso). Moreover, the states which were not new democracies but nonetheless switched from Taiwan to China – i.e., Senegal, Chad and Malawi – did so as a result of popular, election-linked developmental imperatives.

Over the last five decades, Taiwan has shed allies and recognisers (though the US remains an important military backer with no official recognition since 1979) and presently only has 17 formal diplomatic relations in the world, and only 1 in the African continent (the Kingdom of eSwatini). Since 2000, African countries have overwhelmingly recognized China as opposed to Taiwan including Liberia, Chad, Senegal, Malawi, Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Burkina Faso. Beijing has reportedly also made overtures to eSwatini. Interestingly, many of these states were initially reached out to either through the platform of the FOCAC, or reportedly by promises of foreign aid as well as, for the conflict-ridden countries (e.g. Liberia and Chad), assistance through the UN Security Council, where the People’s Republic of China obtained a permanent seat in 1971 – succeeding the ROC which had held the seat given to China in 1945 upon the creation of the United Nations. How have scholars understood this history? This is briefly reviewed in the upcoming section.

At the end of the Cold War, Copper (1995: 222) correctly observed that Taiwan tends to have smaller relations, but in at least one book and one paper came to the incorrect conclusion that “future trends in this regard probably favour the ROC, particularly given the fact, among other reasons, the PRC’s relations with the Third World are generally tenuous owing to Beijing’s becoming a major recipient of aid and loans from international lending institutions while absorbing large quantities of private investment capital, to the detriment of other developing nations.” This grew from a retrospective application of ideology on the question of the recognition of Taiwan borne from an association between these states’ small size as well as that of Taiwan’s own small size; “many smaller nations side with the ROC (also a small nation) saying that its sovereignty should be protected against a larger aggressive nation. More importantly, they support the idea of self-determination and apply that principle to Taiwan” (Copper, 1995: 225). This led to a prediction by Copper that Taiwan would continue having relations with the states on the continent.

This has not been the case however. Rich and Banerjee (2015: 141) perceptively observe that “whereas Cold War rationales initially benefitted Taiwan, economic interests now appear to incentivize African countries to establish relations with China. Through qualitative and quantitative data covering much of the post-World War II era, [their analysis] argues that economic factors have trumped political rationales for Taiwanese–African relations.” Incumbent upon this is an assumption – that one of the two Chinas has marginally more to offer than the other; the PRC’s annual GDP growth, and thus its exporting and importing potentials, have been consistently higher than that of the ROC. Thus, insofar as African states would perform an opportunity cost analysis as to which China to recognise, the PRC is the more economically viable option.

More concretely, in their case study of South Africa, Williams and Hurst (2017: 3) argue that “the ROC and PRC were far from passive bystanders” in the first four years of democracy as Pretoria was choosing which China to recognise: “the ROC provided first the ANC [African National Congress], and then the South African government, with a range of inducements designed to make the case that retaining ties with the island government was in South Africa’s best interest.”

The importance of the use of incentives and coercion is further demonstrated in the fact that “the focus of Mandela’s trip to the ROC in........

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