China’s New Economic Power is a Weapon in Old Disputes


A month ago, the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, visited Mongolia. Despite years of repressive communist rule, more than half of Mongolians consider themselves Buddhist. The primary sects of Buddhism followed in Mongolia are descendants of Tibetan buddhism, meaning the Dalai Lama has visited numerous times to connect with his followers. This time, however, was different. Why? Because of China.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty at the dawn of the 20th century, Tibet had existed as a de facto independent state. Once the Communist Party consolidated control over all of China, however, it turned its attention towards Tibet. In 1950, it began a campaign to absorb Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India. Since then, he has continued to advocate for greater Tibetan autonomy. As a result, China has embarked on a campaign to discredit him as a separatist.

The 14th Dalai Lama

It’s no surprise, then, that China wasn’t happy with the Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia, but that has never stopped Mongolia from welcoming him before. After this particular visit, however, the government decided to give into China’s demands and announced that the Dalai Lama would never again be welcome in the country. So what changed?

This time, Mongolia can’t afford to anger China. A few years ago, Mongolia’s economy was booming as a result of its rich mineral deposits. But since global commodity prices have nosedived, the country has struggled to repay its debts and has received a credit downgrade. As a result, it is seeking a $4.2 billion dollar loan from China. Furthermore, China accounts for a huge majority of Mongolia’s imports and exports. Leveraging its economic advantage, China closed a major border crossing with Mongolia and froze talks regarding the terms of the loan deal. Ultimately, the Mongolian government decided that its economy was more important than its religion. So the Dalai Lama is no longer welcome in Ulaanbaatar.

São Tomé and Príncipe

The location of São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa

The government of São Tomé and Príncipe, a small island nation off the west coat of Africa, has decided to shutter its embassy in Taipei. Before Wednesday, São Tomé and Príncipe was one of 22 countries that recognized the Republic of China, based in Taiwan, as the legal successor of the Qing Dynasty. Now, that number has dropped to 21. The rest of the world recognizes the People’s Republic of China, based in Beijing, as the successor of the Qing Dynasty.

Although most people believe Taiwan, an island of the east coast of China, is an independent nation, its status is actually quite a bit more complicated. Following the fall of the Qing dynasty, a republic was established in China. The republic, however, was never able to successfully consolidate control over the entire country. First, power was concentrated in the hands of several regional warlords. Then, the Japanese invaded the country. In the meantime, a civil war was being fought between the Republic of China and the Communist Party of China. Eventually, the Communist Party of China began to triumph. As a result, the leaders of the Republic of China fled to Taiwan and established a government there. Since then, they have claimed to be the legal representative of all of China, not just Taiwan.

The Republic of China only controls Taiwan, the purple island on the far right side of this image. But it claims to control all of this.

Thus the government of Taiwan does not lead an independent country; rather, it is a government in exile that claims to represent all of China. Because of this, a country cannot diplomatically recognize both the government of Taiwan and the communist government of China. By recognizing Taiwan, a country is at the same time delegitimizing the People’s Republic of China. So when São Tomé and Príncipe declared that it would sever ties with Taiwan, what it is really doing is switching its allegiance from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China.

Doing so is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, island nations in the Pacific often switch sides depending on which government seems more likely to grant them development aid. So like Mongolia’s recent decision, the reason for São Tomé and Príncipe’s decision is economic.

Over the past few years, China has poured billions of dollars into Africa. It has granted loans, bought land, and built infrastructure. From Nigeria to Ethiopia to Kenya, it has funded massive projects across the continent. São Tomé and Príncipe has benefitted little from China’s massive injection of capital, probably because of its recognition of the Republic of China. So in shifting its diplomatic ties, it is likely attempting to gain a piece of the People’s Republic’s bountiful pie.

Old Beefs, New Bounties

For decades, the People’s Republic of China has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Now, it is second behind the United States. When the leaders of the Republic of China crossed the straight to Beijing, China was an agrarian society steeped in crushing poverty. When the Dalai Lama left Tibet, it had yet to develop into a great power. It had nuclear weapons and massive population, but for years its poverty held it back. But times have changed. Now that China has made progress in development, it has become a powerhouse. Smaller nations like Mongolia and São Tomé and Príncipe can no longer afford to stand up to an economic empire. Beijing is fully aware of its newfound power, and it’s using it gain an upper hand in old disputes.

The Gambia After the Election: The Winner is Uncertainty

2016 has seen more electoral upsets than any other year in recent memory. First, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Next, the United States elected Donald Trump as its president, shocking the world. But what may be the most shocking election result of the entire year is in neither of these countries. Instead, it is in continental Africa’s smallest country, the Gambia, where Adama Barrow defeated the incumbent Yahya Jammeh in the country’s presidential race. Unlike the elections in the United Kingdom and the United States, which were largely the culmination of long-term political trends in The West, the election in the Gambia stood in complete contradiction to recent African political trends. The drama that has unfolded over the two weeks following the decision, however, is very much in line with the trend that the election itself so shockingly rejected.

In triumphing over Jammeh, Barrow achieved something that seemed impossible: he defeated a dictator in an election. In the context of African politics, that almost never happens. In February, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni easily secured re-election for the fourth time. In March, the Republic of the Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso won re-election after changing the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third term. In April, Africa’s longest serving president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, further extended his time in power by triumphing in his country’s elections. In September, the incumbent president’s narrow margin victory sparked nationwide protests and justified allegations of fraud in Gabon. Across the continent, autocrats frequently stage elections to project an air of legitimacy. But they never lose them.

So how did Jammeh lose his? In order to understand how Barrow triumphed, it is necessary to understand why and how fraudulent elections are held in the first place. The purpose of these elections is to act as a cushion against accusations of dictatorship. Leaders hold elections in order to gain legitimacy. As a result, they often try not to make them blatantly rigged, and they often permit a certain degree of opposition to maintain the illusion of democracy. Take the example of Gabon’s election in September. Gabon’s leader, Ali Bongo, is widely considered an autocrat. Yet he does not use traditional dictatorial tactics to remain in power. He allows opposition and is far less repressive than Jammeh. Instead, he maintains power by building institutions that favor his rule. He controls the media, has staffed his government with friends and family, and has filled the courts with loyalists. As a result, he didn’t need the population’s approval to win the election.

Jammeh uses the very same tactics as Bongo, except he even takes it a step further and imprisons the opposition. As a result, he likely felt incredibly confident about his ability to win the election. After triumphing by a huge margin in 2011, it is not surprising that he told the BBC that he would rule for “one billion years.” When the media, the military, and most of the government is loyal to a ruler, electoral victory seems like a given. So Jammeh probably didn’t feel the need to prepare for an elaborate rigging of the vote. He would simply let his political dominance do the job. But considering that the opposition was united for the first time, youth unemployment is high, and thousands of Gambians are leaving the country for Europe, political dominance was not enough. The voters decided that it was time for a change.

And in what was probably the most shocking event of the last few weeks, Jammeh conceded. His loss is explainable when factoring in foolishness, but his concession truly baffled the world. In a country where he could have chosen to remain in power had he truly wanted to, it seemed almost as if Jammeh was willingly ceding control. The situation seemed unlike any that an African country had faced in years. In a continent where many leaders are holding fraudulent elections or attempting to remove constitutional term limits, here was a dictator of 22 years who was willingly choosing to give up power peacefully! What a relieving break from recent political trends! Or not. A little over a week after the election, Jammeh recanted his concession.

And so the Gambia’s break with the mainstream broke down as Jammeh called for new elections and deployed troops into the streets of Banjul, the country’s capital, and Serrekunda, its largest city. In doing so, he plunged the Gambia into a period of uncertainty. Jammeh has the backing of the Presidential Guard, but Barrow has the backing of the people and of the international community. As a mediation effort led by various West African heads of state failed, fears are rising that the Gambia is headed towards violence. Some have warned of the risk of civil war, and there has been talk of foreign military intervention by other West African states. Jammeh’s unpredictability has forced his country into a very difficult predicament.

Three weeks ago, this blog published an article entitled What to Know Ahead of Thursday’s Election in The Gambia. Now, it is clear that the contents of that article were not enough to truly make sense of the drama that has plagued the Gambia over the past few weeks. In truth, no amount of background information can confidently predict the outcome of this crisis. Jammeh has shown that he really, really does not want to leave office, and he fears that he will be prosecuted by a Barrow administration. That can be said for certain. But his inability to effectively rig the election has left him cornered. And if Jammeh was incredibly unpredictable before he was cornered, it is difficult to imagine what he will do now that he is.