After nearly two decades of formal recognition shared between Sao Tome and Principe and Taiwan, both sides abruptly dismantled their diplomatic relationship on December 21, 2016. The decision was surprising, because relations between the two former diplomatic allies were seemingly going well until the announcement. The impact on Taiwan’s diplomatic space of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signing on two of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in just two months was significant in itself, but there are also overlooked sensitive geopolitics and global security implications.
Sao Tome and Principe’s recent break with Taiwan involves an especially complicated mix of diplomacy, politics, economics, and even personal ties among elites. In the background are the early stages of Beijing’s decision to renew “checkbook diplomacy” competition with Taiwan, demonstrated when The Gambia resumed diplomatic relations with the PRC in March 2016, three years after breaking official ties with Taiwan. One month later, Sao Tome and Principe did the same. In the foreground is Sao Tome and Principe’s rumored request for 200 million US dollars, which is said to have been declined by Taiwan. As mentioned in previous writings, it is an audacious amount for Sao Tome to ask for, as it equals roughly half of the total annual GDP of the entire country. There is even a small plot twist: Sao Tome and Principe President Carvalho’s two grown children are studying abroad in Taiwan, and the President’s daughter-in-law is Taiwanese.
In retrospect, it is unfortunate that the vibrant and supportive relationship between Taiwan and Sao Tome and Principe ended, especially since both sides accomplished a great deal together over the decades and helped each other immensely. For example, Taiwan’s health advisors, sent to Sao Tome and Principe over the past two decades, contributed to lowering the incidence of malaria from 50 percent to 1 percent today. According to local islander Milancia Fernao Dias, “[Taiwan] eradicated malaria. Before, it killed lots of us.” Taiwan has also sent medical teams and educators to its African partner. In turn, Taiwan’s diplomatic allies give it a voice in inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations.
Part of the reason for the break is likely the current political cross-Strait environment. In political science, “comparativists” speak of necessary and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition by itself may not be enough to cause a result, but must itself be sufficient, or coupled with a sufficient condition for an outcome to occur. The necessary but insufficient condition for Taiwan to lose diplomatic allies is Beijing’s resumption of diplomatic competition with Taiwan after nearly a decade-long truce. At the risk of sounding esoteric: If political competition was both necessary and sufficient, Taiwan would not have any allies anymore because by definition it alone would be enough to pull all allies away from Taiwan, yet it is only happening in a few instances so far.
The other part is economic. The sufficient condition is an offer of a large sum of money from China to Sao Tome and Principe in the form of deep-water port infrastructure investment. A year before the break, in October 2015, Sao Tome and Principe had already signed a 120 million US dollar memorandum of understanding with state-owned China Harbor Engineering to build a deep-water port. This is what finally brought Sao Tome and Principe out of Taiwan’s diplomatic orbit. However, money alone, though a sufficient condition, lacks the necessary condition of politics. It is no coincidence that both Sao Tome and Principe and The Gambia renewed relations with Beijing in 2016. The politics of a diplomatic truce between China and Taiwan over the past decade had previously deterred diplomatic changes based on purely economic considerations, but China is now less restrained.
What is easily missed at face value is how the economic aspect of Beijing’s calculations may also be intimately tied to security. On the one hand, Sao Tome and Principe has great economic ambition. The aforementioned port deal with China fits squarely with Sao Tome and Principe’s Prime Minister Trovoada’s dream of reorienting the country’s economy toward trade to become a major transshipment hub, like Dubai. Yet for Beijing, Sao Tome and Principe is potentially a piece on the chessboard of its global military power projection.
The PRC is conspicuously extending its “string of pearls” of military access to ports within its region and beyond, and it is likely to include Sao Tome and Principe. China’s submarines have held official visits to Malaysia. In the Middle East, early rumors of China building a naval base in Djibouti have become a reality. In South Asia, China’s nuclear submarine docked in Colombo’s civilian port (built using hundreds of millions of US dollars in Chinese investment and loans by the same China Harbor Engineering Company) though not a military port, which suggests that ports will have dual civil and military use for China. Similar events took place in the Maldives. In Namibia, the Minister of Defense Spokesperson, Lt. Col. Monica Sheya, confirmed that talks between Namibia and China have taken place regarding installing a PLA naval base in Namibia in the next 10 years. Likewise, China could have military-strategic plans for Sao Tome and Principe’s new port, although its location in the Gulf of Guinea is far more distant from China’s current naval activity throughout the East Asia, South Asia and Middle East regions.
Sao Tome and Principe Prime Minister Trovoada is already taking into account Chinese PLA use of the port in his country once it is built. However, he reassures concerned observers that that China’s military use of the port would have to overlap with the interests of Sao Tome and Principe, and its tradition of working with NATO. According to Trovoada, “Everybody has to be together to fight the threat of piracy, terrorism. If China comes to protect what I call common interests, then fine. If there is not a proportion between what they bring in terms of military force, then we need to question that.” It is uncertain how well Sao Tome can dictate and constrain China when the time comes, since the unequal relationship is one between an aid recipient/borrower and a donor/lender.
China and Taiwan’s diplomatic shifts may be more fluid than we expect. Taiwan had originally brought Sao Tome and Principe over from the PRC two decades ago, in 1997; now, Sao Tome and Principe is going back to the PRC, but the African country could find it advantageous to shift back to Taiwan yet again in the future. The next articles in this series will cover Taiwan’s grassroots approach to providing aid to its diplomatic allies, China’s use of economic incentives to entice Taiwan’s partners, and more on global security dynamics.
The main point: Taiwan and Sao Tome and Principe broke ties due to a confluence of political and economic reasons, yet there is also an easily overlooked security implication: China can strengthen its PLA Navy’s power projection capabilities by using this African island country’s strategic position, tucked in the Gulf of Guinea near Africa’s Ivory Coast.