Taiwan president to visit last African ally Eswatini

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen will visit Eswatini, the island’s last African ally, early next month, the government said on Friday, looking to shore up ties at a time China is whittling away at the small number of countries still sticking by Taipei.

Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory with no right to state-to-state relations, now has formal ties with only 13 countries, almost all small, less developed nations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, like Belize and Nauru.

In March, Honduras ended decades of ties with Taiwan, and Guatemala’s president-elect said this week he wants to improve relations with China at the same time as sticking with Taiwan.

Taiwan deputy foreign minister Roy Lee said Tsai will be in Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, from Sept. 5-7 for the 55th anniversary of the country’s independence, and also marking 55 years of bilateral relations.

Eswatini is almost entirely surrounded by South Africa.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Africa this week for a BRICS summit, but Lee said Tsai’s trip had no connection to that as Eswatini’s national day has always been Sept. 6.

“It’s not to compete with the BRICS summit or Xi Jinping’s visit. It’s purely a coincidence of timing,” Lee told reporters.

Tsai is flying directly to Eswatini and not have to stop over anywhere, unlike visits to Latin America which require transits via the United States that always anger China.

Tsai last visited Eswatini in 2018, and this time is being accompanied by Economy Minister Wang Mei-hua, Lee added.

Taiwan has provided large amounts of aid to the small southern African country, an absolute monarchy, including in 2021 antiviral medication to help King Mswati III recover from COVID.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)