Historical Solidarity and the Taiwan Issue in Sino-Africa Relations

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping during a state visit in August ahead of the BRICS Summit in 2023. Picture: Siyabulela Duda / GCIS

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping during a state visit in August ahead of the BRICS Summit in 2023. Picture: Siyabulela Duda / GCIS

Published Jul 8, 2024


By Gideon Chitanga

Among many defining issues, the Taiwan issue emotively looms large in Sino-Africa relations, as well as in Beijing’s global foreign policy, and it is for a reason.

China has strongly pursued a policy of reunification with Taiwan, and the current leadership emphasise that this goal must be achieved peacefully or forcefully to realise complete national sovereignty and territorial integrity beyond the legacy of colonialism.

Taiwan defected from mainland China at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 to set up what has become a contentious administration which now risks to become a flashpoint for potential major conflict as China pursues unification, while Western countries back Taiwan. African countries have developed strong mutually beneficial political and economic ties with China, and view Beijing as a trusted friend.

As modern China unshackled herself from years of colonial interference from Dutch, Japanese, British and extended US external interference, and the painful civil war to establish the modern government under the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan defected to assert its autonomy under the ROC. Since the end of the World War II, the issue of Taiwan, which includes several islands such as Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and smaller others pervasively invokes the pernicious divisive meddling of Western powers in China, and other foreign territories undermining national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

For China, and many African countries, the issue of Taiwan is a domestic matter. However, the USA and many of its allies say that they officially recognise the One China policy, but seem to support Taiwan’s independence, or what they call the status quo. China views the posture of the US and its allies over Taiwan as dabbling in its domestic affairs, stoking internal secessionist foment, and a violation of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, undermining the One China policy.

Several documents and agreements based on the One China policy guide US-China policy over Taiwan. Mutual historical commitments as expressed in several documents, such as the three US-China communiqués reached in 1972, 1978, and 1982; the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the US Congress in 1979; and the recently declassified “Six Assurances” of 1982, which President Ronald Reagan conveyed to Taiwan in 1982 sets a clear commitment for the US to uphold the One China policy.

The US and its allies however maintain a controversial and problematic unofficial posture towards Taiwan which intrudes, and violates the international place and position of Taiwan as officially Chinese territory under the government of the People's Republic of China as expressed in many official documents between the two sovereign countries. Such a posture, associated with broader Western interventionist policies abroad, have elicited a lot of criticism from African countries, which share a history of colonial subjugation and violent destabilising external intervention in their domestic affairs.

The US is the biggest supplier of arms to Taiwan, maintains cultural and massive commercial dealings with Taiwan. Taiwan is the biggest micro-chips producer and supplier in the world, and much of its productions is crucial to US tech industries.

In April 2024, the Biden administration announced plans to award Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) up to $6.6 billion in grants to help bring advanced semiconductor technology to the United States in order to increase the US's ability to produce leading-edge semiconductors, with the hope of reaching 20% of the world's total by 2030. TSMC is the world's leading manufacturer of advanced microchips, and has invested over $40 billion in two facilities in Phoenix, Arizona.

The US also maintains unofficial political contacts with Taiwan through proxy entities, and certain levels of contact with certain government structures such as Congress. In August 2022, former US House Representative, Nancy Pelosi paid a visit to Taiwan, which was condemned as a threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait by Chinese Authorities in Beijing.

The Chinese government has firmly emphasised that the reunification of Taiwan with Beijing is a legitimate goal which will be strongly pursued and realised to achieve both complete national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Other countries have indeed achieved such a goal for the benefit of their countries. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany achieved its modern reunification, bringing together former Western and Eastern Germany into modern day Germany.

The Chinese people from both sides of the Taiwan strait would be better left to seeking domestic path towards this goal. The 1992 Consensus between representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) party suggest that the two sides are agreed on pursuit of peaceful reunification. According to President Xi the 1992 Consensus express this position by stating: “the two sides of the strait belong to one China and would work together to seek national reunification.” This position is buttressed by previous international agreements such as the Cairo conference of 1943, and the Potsdam Conference of 1945 which agreed to the return of Taiwan to mainland China, with both the US and UK recognising that Taiwan is an integral part of China.

The United Nations (UN) recognise China, and views Taiwan as part of China, upholding the one China policy despite evident machinations from Western powers to smuggle Taiwan into UN activities. There are only 12 countries which have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including Eswatini, the only African country to maintain such diplomatic relations.

Fifty-three African countries strongly back the One China policy, and have formal diplomatic relations with China. China has been the leading trading partner with the African continent, and South Africa for a couple years powering extensive infrastructure development, two-way trade in agriculture, mining and manufacturing and new technologies, anchoring effective mutually beneficial economic diplomacy with thriving people to people and cultural diplomacy.

Crucially, it is historical solidarity, particularly against colonial domination, plunder and exploitation, and the vagaries of coercive conflictual Western interference in the domestic affairs of African countries which explains their firm support for the One China policy.

The violation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity at the behest of the West, or with subtle support of some Western powers invokes painful memories of colonial and post-colonial conflicts in African countries. African leaders and citizens are worry of what they call Western double standards. The conflict in Gaza has become a major emotional issue of gross violation of human rights which may forever define changing world views about the partisan role of the West in the perpetuation of genocide. The conflict in Ukraine has also demonstrated the vulnerability of fragile African economies during major conflicts.

Many African states strongly support the One China policy, in abiding with the principle of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, a major norm which also guides relations within the African Union (AU). In doing so, they share the view raised by the Chargé d'affaires of the Embassy of China in South Africa, Li Zhigang that the Taiwan question bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and is a non-negotiable principle embedded at the heart of China’s core interests.

President Xi has asserted that his government is firmly committed to the realisation of full unification of China peacefully, but also forcefully, to ensure the total sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, based on the pursuit of One China policy. Such a policy entails “One country, two systems” as a model for unification, a constitutional Principle of the Peoples Republic of China describing the governance of the special administrative regions of Hong Kong, Macau.

For many African countries the issue of Taiwan, as with other territories historically caved off from the China is a domestic issue. African countries believe that China is capable of peacefully realising its reunification to fully realise its national sovereignty and territorial integrity in a manner which advances peaceful core-existence, cooperation, and development.

* Gideon Chitanga is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for Africa China Studies, University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.