Martins Hile, Editor, Financial Nigeria magazine

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Nigeria as a pawn for One-China policy 13 Feb 2017

The Nigerian government has become a willing pawn in the Chinese government’s quest to reunify with Taiwan. Realizing Nigeria’s dire need for capital investments, amid declining oil revenue, the Chinese government succeeded in using the promise of additional $40 billion in investment as bargaining chip to reaffirm Nigeria’s support for Beijing’s One-China policy. Under this policy, Beijing requires any country seeking diplomatic ties with it to sever official relations with the government in Taipei. China wants to achieve reunification with Taiwan by any means necessary, including military force.
At a joint press conference with the Chinese Foreign Minister last month, Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said the government had ordered the Taiwanese trade office in Abuja to close down and move to Lagos. Onyeama stated the government would do everything to realise the One-China Policy. While Nigeria has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the two nations set up trade offices in each other's capital city, under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 1990.
Taiwan is not competing against China as a trade partner with Nigeria. Beijing's objective is to limit Taiwan's influence on the global stage in order to pressure its neighbour into unification. The Taiwanese government has described China's strategy – of using its growing economic clout to isolate the island nation diplomatically – as "dollar diplomacy." The Chinese government has intensified this strategy since the pro-independence Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, assumed office last year.

The two Chinese states have had a tortuous political history, dating back to when Taiwan was formally incorporated as a Chinese territory under the Qing dynasty in 1683. The island was ceded to Japan at the end of the eight-month war between the Chinese and Japanese empires in April 1895. Following the end of WWII and the defeat of Japan, the so-called allied powers required the Japanese government to end its 50-year rule over Taiwan. The political and legal status of Taiwan has been the subject of much debate ever since.

Taiwanese nationalists have contested the idea that sovereignty of Taiwan was transferred to mainland China when Japan renounced its imperial power. But as a former Chinese territory, a claim over the sovereignty of Taiwan is hinged on the territorial atavism of China, which continues to regard Taiwan as a province. 

China has never hidden its ambition to annex Taiwan. Notwithstanding, Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself an independent, sovereign nation. As a capitalist economy and multi-party democracy, it also seeks a divergent political path from communist China. Only a minority of the Taiwanese people are in favour of unification. The current president – who is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favours independence from China – won last year’s election against a Beijing-friendly candidate of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party of China).

The October 25, 1971 UN resolution that expelled the representatives of Taipei and gave legitimacy to the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the only recognised sovereign government to represent China at the UN, effectively launched Taiwan into diplomatic limbo. By 1979, the U.S. broke off ties with Taiwan, to establish relations with China, giving validity to the One-China policy. In the mid-1990s when it made full transition from a martial law dictatorship to a democracy, Taiwan was left with 30 diplomatic allies. As of February 2017, only the Vatican and 20 countries, including two in Africa – Burkina Faso and Swaziland – maintain diplomatic relations with the ROC.    

The United States – along with a number of countries holding diplomatic ties with mainland China – has maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity with regard to Taiwan, despite China’s disagreements over this policy. Unofficially, the U.S. continues to sell billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Taiwan. The American government also finds scope to support Taiwan’s membership in international organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, among others where statehood is not a precondition for membership. While the U.S. doesn’t support the independence of Taiwan, it is a stated policy of the U.S. government to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.       

Under the cover of such cooperation with ostensibly non-diplomatic allies, Taiwan has been able to thrive economically. It earned over $314 billion from exports last year. Its 2015 GDP was $519 billion, the 7th largest in Asia. Taiwan enjoys a high level of economic freedom, ranking 14th on Heritage Foundation's 2016 Index of Economic Freedom – Nigeria is ranked 116th out of 186 countries and placed in the "mostly unfree" category of the index.    

President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has clearly shown it has no strategic interest in leveraging trade opportunities with one of the richest nations in Asia. The lack of national strategic thinking on Taiwan is symptomatic of the administration. The goodwill it initially enjoyed among Western countries has been frittered away. The government rejected an IMF programme and it has failed to initiate creditable policies to attract support from Western-backed multilateral lenders. With a N2.4 trillion budget deficit to finance in 2017, the government could not but acquiesce to Beijing, even though the Chinese have made prior investments in Nigeria without holding the country to ransom. The government's decision is also a violation of the MOU, which stipulates Taiwan’s office should be set up in Nigeria's capital city.   

Credit must be given to Burkina Faso and Swaziland – the two, much smaller, African countries that have refused to be swayed by China's economic diplomacy or accept to be browbeaten into supporting the One-China agenda.

Then, there is the moral question about the international conspiracy against a conclusive determination of Taiwan’s political status. By all means, every country must protect its territorial integrity. That is why secessionist sentiments, even in Nigeria, are met with brute force. However, the right to self-determination is a recognized construct under international law. The unification ambition that China seeks with Taiwan is both retrograde and a violation of Taiwanese right to self-determination.

Beijing’s insistence that there is only one China and “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China” is a suppression of the fundamental human rights of the Taiwanese people, majority of whom are not desirous of unification. But China's record on human rights is well-known. Therefore, a declaration of independence by Taiwan will only presage a military response for which the outcome is predetermined.