On May 24, 2018, Burkina Faso’s Minister of foreign affairs, Alpha Barry, announced that after 24 years of cooperation, his country had decided to cease diplomatic relations with Taipei and re-engage with Beijing. While Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China (ROC), views itself as an independent sovereign state, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers the island a breakaway province that must be reunited with the Mainland. The news comes only weeks after the Dominican Republic made a similar announcement. Taipei is now left with only eighteen remaining countries recognizing its sovereignty, most of which are poorer nations in Central America and the Pacific.
Since President Tsai Ing wen and the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election in 2016, Beijing has intensified a campaign to further isolate Taiwan and lure away most of its remaining diplomatic backers. Through its “One China” policy, the PRC claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory and refuses to maintain diplomatic relations with countries that still recognize the island. At this year´s National People´s Congress of the PRC, President Xi Jinping warned of “punishment of history” for any attempt at separatism.
The decision of Burkina Faso to break off diplomatic ties is the latest blow to the island that has lost no less than five of its diplomatic partners over the past two years. This is, however, not the first time Ouagadougou has switched its diplomatic allegiance. From 1973 to 1994, the country recognized the PRC, whose accession to the UN Security Council and generous aid packages in the agricultural and medical sectors made it an attractive partner. In the following years, the reduction in Chinese foreign investments led President Blaise Kaboré to restore relations with Taipei whose policy had shifted to providing enticing development assistance in the context of President Lee Teng Hui’s checkbook diplomacy. Burkina Faso is far from being the only country to have switched back and forth between Beijing and Taipei. A dozen other African states engaged in this “Yo-Yo diplomacy”. For instance, both Liberia and the Central African Republic have each extended recognition to the ROC three times.
From Romance to Realpolitik
During its 27-year rule, former president Blaise Compaoré’s government had made the relationship with the ROC a priority, working hard towards rapprochement and displaying the deepest commitment. He visited Taipei many times and repeatedly voiced support for its membership in the UN. However, the Taiwanese-Burkinabe marriage has borne the brunt of an abrupt leadership transition. In 2014, a series of protests started after Compaoré attempted to amend the constitution to extend his term in office. Following a popular uprising however, the president was ousted and fled to the Ivory Coast. In the following year, a failed coup against the interim government further shook the fragile political landscape of Burkina Faso. As it had done in Senegal and Malawi in earlier years, China took advantage of the political turmoil to regain Burkina Faso as a partner, offering to contribute 4.6 million USD to the campaign of pro-Beijing candidate, Zéphirin Diabré, during the 2015 presidential elections. The victory of his opponent, Roch Kaboré, seemed to bode well for Taipei but the new leader quickly embraced a more pragmatic approach to diplomacy. Aware that he could not take on the burden of supporting an isolated Taiwan anymore, he saw in the PRC the better ally.
In recent years, Beijing has imposed itself as a key player on the international scene that has the means to provide Burkina Faso with the resources for much needed socio-economic development and increased regional integration. Indeed, the landlocked West African State is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Located within the Sahel desert, it experiences recurrent drought and desertification. Burkina Faso exhibits a low level of human development, stagnant economic growth and rapid population growth. Moreover, the security environment has further deteriorated in the last years, with the country suffering the threats of terrorism and Islamic extremism. The volte-face was thus mainly guided by Kaboré’s conviction that a relationship with the PRC was no longer avoidable and would better serve the interests of his nation.
It was also influenced by the interests of the Sankarist party, with which Kaboré had to form a coalition to win a parliamentary majority, as well as those of the Burkinabe business community. Aware of the benefit of China’s assistance in terms of infrastructure development and investments in key sectors such as mining, they both favored an economic “rapprochement” with Beijing. Not recognizing the PRC also meant missing out on the opportunity to participate in regional or sub-regional projects in Africa. For instance, Beijing refused to assist Burkina Faso with projects such as the rehabilitation of the Abidjan-Ouagadougou railway or the Sahel G5 because of its diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
The renewal of Sino-Burkinabe relations offers interesting prospects for partnerships. Wang Yang, Chairman of China’s National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference met with President Kaboré and invited Burkina Faso to attend the next Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)summit in September 2018 in Beijing. The two countries are planning to cooperate in various sectors including energy, education and health. China also pledged to assist Burkina Faso in the fight against terrorism by providing military support to the nation.
Prospects for Taiwan?
In Taipei, the news of Burkina Faso’s change of course sent shock waves through the Tsai government and even prompted the resignation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joseph Wu. Tai Ing Wen expressed her deepest disappointment at Burkina Faso’s decision and bitterly condemned Beijing’s “dollar diplomacy”. The island had recently sought to double down on its key African ally, multiplying bilateral projects in many sectors and offering generous financial assistance packages. However, as it seems, the ROC could not compete with the PRC’s financial assistance.
In any case, the tide has definitely turned for Taipei. The tiny kingdom of Swaziland (eSwatini) is now the last African country to recognize its sovereignty. The Swazi government, has so far, not expressed the desire to shift allegiance, despite being eagerly pressed by Beijing to sever ties with the ROC. However, Burkina Faso had last year, also turned down Beijing’s offer of 50 billion USD before it eventually decided to reconsider. It thus remains to be seen whether the country will keep its diplomatic commitment to Taipei or follow sister nations in joining the big Sino-African family.