It is undeniable that eSwatini is transitioning, and it is highly unlikely that the country will revert to the political, legal, economic, and social contexts that once obtained.

There is a lot that has changed about that country, so much so that the relationship between the state and its citizens is nothing like it was eighteen months ago. As the country transitions, it is trite that at the forefront of all reform is the drive for inclusive and democratic governance of the country that belongs to all who are its citizens.

Inclusive and democratic governance by its very nature means that there will have to be a conversation about what change means, and as a consequence, much will be reconfigured as regards how we relate with each other as citizens, how we expect a democratically elected government to relate with all inhabitants of this country, and of course, the people – through the government – will choose how eSwatini relates with international state and non-state actors.

For instance, it may well be that under a democratic dispensation the government of eSwatini may elect to withdraw from SADC or COMESA regional blocs – which are international non-state actors. However, what is almost guaranteed is that there will be a long engagement with a variety of national, regional, and international stakeholders as regards eSwatini’s foreign policy. This engagement will require a deliberate effort by the government to reorient the numerous existing relationships with certain states, and of course the establishment of new relationships within the international community of states.

At the centre of all this change, there will be one key consideration – namely: how does eSwatini wish to position itself in African geopolitics and beyond. The political posture(s) taken by the democratic government will be instructive to other states as to how they wish to deal and relate with eSwatini. Therefore, if eSwatini wants to attain the status of a prominent political stakeholder in international relations, it will be important for the government to formulate clear positions on issues such as the Israeli/Palestine conflict, Global South issues, Africa’s relationship with the West, China’s presence in Africa, and matters of regional security.

One issue of international interest that is likely to spur heated debate for our transition is the relationship eSwatini has enjoyed with Taiwan since our independence in September 1968. The Republic of China (Taiwan) has had nothing but glowing remarks about its relationship with eSwatini, and they continue to service this relationship on mutually agreeable terms. The current government of eSwatini has on numerous occasions expressed its pleasure in the relationship with Taiwan. The only problem with this relationship is that it is not based on sound political reasoning. The government of eSwatini simply cannot argue doctrinally why it recognizes Taiwan as a state – and conversely why it does not maintain a relationship with the People’s Republic of China (China).

In any event, it would be hard to do so because Taiwan is careful to present itself as a democratic state separate and independent of China. There really are no identifiable shared values between eSwatini and Taiwan; one may even speculate that if Taiwan was a state recognized by a vast majority of the international community, the relationship with eSwatini would be mildly cordial at best – given eSwatini’s dismal human rights record and utter disdain for democratic values. So this begs the question as to the nature, content, and scope of the relationship between the two states.

China is obviously closely monitoring the situation in eSwatini, and there is a reasonable expectation that when there is a change of government, China will engage in robust advocacy and lobby efforts to make the new government see the reason for severing ties with Taipei and establishing a new relationship with Beijing. At that point, there obviously would be some pushback from states such as the United States whose position on Taiwan has a very complex history. What is clear though, is that the US currently views Taiwan as a strategic ally and is prepared to stand with Taiwan should China lead a military campaign to enforce the claim that Taiwan in fact belongs to China.

Be that as it may, China will be well within its right to seek recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations with Eswatini – however, China is clear that no state can recognize both China and Taiwan as distinct states. The problem that Taiwan will likely face is that for the first time in history, it will have to engage in an intelligent conversation with eSwatini’s new government as to why it should maintain ties and recognize Taiwan as a state separate from China. No longer will this conversation be about money or aid, because what Taiwan is prepared to give – the Chinese will be prepared to give tenfold. The terms and conditions thereof are a topic for another day, but history will certainly unveil the terms upon which Taiwan assisted eSwatini in the past. It will be for Swazis to then decide whether these are materially more sinister than the terms offered by Beijing.

What the conversation will focus on is international law, history, and the future. It is within that conversation with both Taiwan and China that the One-China Policy will feature. Simply put, this policy is self-explanatory. Its basic tenet is that there is not two, but only one China. This is to say that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China cannot co-exist. The overwhelming majority of states recognize only the latter, and therefore do not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan – even though some do offer some degree of engagement with Taiwan, this is not done in the context of relations between two sovereign states.

The One-China policy has also given Taiwan a host of problems at the United Nations level, notwithstanding the fact that Taiwan is desirous to make positive contributions to the different missions of the UN and various UN Agencies. In 2003 Taiwan could not receive information about the prevention of the spread of SARS from the World Health Organization simply because only China could authorize such dissemination. There have also been many failed attempts by Taiwan to join international organizations as a Member State, and generally, the One-China policy is central to the refusal by international organizations to admit Taiwan – of course, China is the chief enforcer of this policy even at that level.

In the coming weeks, there will be an article by this publication unpacking the history of how the One-China policy came to be, and why China insists it has a territorial claim over Taiwan. It will also consider arguments made against the legality of this policy, in favour of Taiwan’s independence from China.

Under a democratic government in eSwatini, relations with Taiwan are not guaranteed. In the larger contextual scheme of things currently, this does not seem a big issue, but it most certainly will be when democracy is achieved and nation building must commence. It may even be an issue that may inform the tone and temperature of eSwatini’s relationship with self-professed allies of Taiwan such as the United States, given the mistrust between Beijing and the West. What may also make the decision as to whether the relationship with Taiwan should be maintained, are the many considerations that cannot be ignored. For instance, one may successfully argue that a new democracy (as eSwatini will be) is better off aligning itself with Taiwan because given an opportunity for good faith engagement – Taiwan could be an excellent partner as we rebuild and plough resources into establishing democratic institutions in eSwatini.

Given the reports on Chinese hegemony in the region, eSwatini will have an opportunity to assess its position and how if it even needs diplomatic relations with China. Then of course, given our history and the gross human rights abuses many Swazis have suffered under the Tinkhundla regime, we will have to consider whether China or Taiwan best represent the values the new Swazi society aspires to. Both China and Taiwan do not have clean hands where this is concerned, but in all fairness, no country has a perfect human rights record. Contextually, we do not have a rich history relating to China – and this may be an advantage in that eSwatini can decide on the terms upon which it would like to maintain diplomatic relations with China.

Taiwan, however, would really have to work hard to convince a democratically elected eSwatini government that it values its recognition over human rights. Taiwan has clearly elected to look away and remain silent in the face of gross human rights violations in this country but has continued to openly support the leader of an oppressive regime. It remains to be seen how far Taiwan is willing to go to ensure that the Tinkhundla government continues to stay in power.

All of these are some of the issues that will come up in discussion, and these will happen against the One-China policy background. It will be very important for our new government to be well versed, if not well advised, on principles of international law, especially as we seek to understand the One-China principle and what it means for the future of relations with either China or Taiwan. This will ensure that before significant government policy (including foreign policy) is made, we make informed decisions and we are able to “read the room”. Such decisions can no longer be made to benefit one person or an elite few. Our friends and foes must be a representation of what Swazis aspire to, and what we seek to prevent from ever occurring again as we chart a future for our beloved country.