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World Perspective | DIPLOMACY

Swaziland and Taiwan's New Ties Paying Off

Closer relations give African nation a rich benefactor and provide Chinese island with the recognition it seeks.

March 13, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MBABANE, Swaziland — There is scant international fame and glory that come with being monarch of a poor mountain kingdom the size of a button on the vast southern African tapestry.

There is also scant fame and glory that come with being a top official of a small island off the coast of China, a lonely place with no seat in the United Nations and a tiny circle of diplomatic friends.

So in a pragmatic arrangement of the I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you'll-scratch-mine variety, the king of Swaziland and the government of Taiwan are heaping fame and glory on each other.

The result? For the Nationalist government in Taipei, it has meant having an adoring African ally to parade before the world--most notably its Communist mainland rival, which considers Taiwan a renegade province. And in return, this kingdom of nearly a million people has gained a rich Asian benefactor to provide jobs and sorely needed foreign investment.

"It may look unusual, but the relationship is working," said a Western diplomat here in the capital. "Both countries are getting what they need out of it."

Swaziland and Taiwan have had diplomatic ties for three decades, but the relations took on new meaning in January when neighboring South Africa recognized the People's Republic of China as "the sole legal government representing the whole of China."

The move by South Africa dealt a serious blow to Taiwan. Most nations, including the U.S., had ended formal relations with Taiwan years ago, leaving South Africa as one of its biggest allies.

South African President Nelson Mandela, whose African National Congress reportedly received $10 million in contributions from Taiwanese donors in 1994, had pledged to stick by Taipei. But the South Africans ultimately could not resist the lure of the world's most populous nation--itself an emerging economic giant.

Taiwan has been furious ever since Mandela announced his change of heart in late 1996. Bitter Taiwanese officials have let it be known that businesses may abandon South Africa for its more loyal Swazi neighbor, which is about the size of Riverside County but has access to neighboring markets through a regional customs union.

"We like to do business with countries that have political ties with our country," said Yang Te-sheng, an executive with the garment division of Taiwan's giant Tuntex Group, which last week dedicated a new shirt factory in Swaziland. "I hear from companies in South Africa that they would like to move here."

Analysts say that if even a fraction of the more than 600 Taiwanese-invested enterprises in South Africa--worth an estimated $1.5 billion--pulled out or redirected future spending, Swaziland could hit the jackpot. Tuntex officials said they had considered South Africa for their factory, which employs 600 and will export about 200,000 garments a year to the U.S.

"I don't care what politics they follow so long as they help our economic program," said Swaziland's finance minister, Temba Masuku.

Last week, the heightened Swazi-Taiwanese partnership got its biggest public display when King Mswati III and his six wives presided over a red-carpet dedication of the $4-million Tuntex factory. Taiwanese Economics Minister Wang Chih-kang joined in the festivities.

The two countries also signed an investment protection guarantee, which is expected to attract more Taiwanese companies by permitting them to repatriate capital and profits.

Tuntex already plans to double the size of its shirt factory and build a fabric mill, while the Taiwanese government has extended a $7-million grant to upgrade a highway linking Swaziland with South Africa and Mozambique. More big-ticket investments are in the works, officials from both countries said.

In return, King Mswati is giving Taiwan what it craves most: public recognition. "We genuinely value our friendship and look forward to strengthening it even further in the years ahead," the king told his audience.

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