China’s soft and hard power offensive in Africa has claimed another convert. In December the two-island state of São Tomé and Principe decided to recognize China, not Taiwan. In Africa, only Swaziland still clings to Taiwan and its material support. In 2016, the Gambia, long a backer of Taiwan, agreed to join all of the other global nations that align themselves with China. With São Tomé’s shift, only twenty-one members of the United Nations are still linked to Taiwan.
São Tomé and Principe, volcanic islands in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast West Africa opposite Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, have in recent years welcomed Chinese investments to upgrade their ex-colonial infrastructure. China is building a massive deep-water port in São Tomé, which will make exporting oil easier and generally facilitate sea-borne commerce.
China also promises to build roads throughout the two islands and construct markets, shopping centers, and other commercial facilities. São Tomé also needs new sewers and sewage disposal plants, and China has agreed to provide them. It will also upgrade the country’s main airport so that the islands can truly become an international destination.
Another major project, possibly to be offered to China, is the damming and production of hydroelectric power from the River Yo, which runs through São Tomé island. China is building at least a dozen major dams elsewhere in Africa, so such a project may prove natural after the signing of the trade agreement and the anticipated full resumption of diplomatic relations.
Nineteen years ago China shut its embassy in São Tomé, but it opened a trade mission in 2013.
Although hardly geo-strategic in importance since Atlantic Ocean shipping lanes are no longer very important militarily, São Tomé and Principe now expects to exploit offshore petroleum deposits with Chinese assistance. The oil and gas deposits were discovered in 2012 and could make São Tomé and Principe a significant producer of petroleum alongside Equatorial Guinea – already a major exporter of oil to China – and nearby Nigeria, Africa’s largest pumper of oil.
There is every geological reason to assume that the territorial waters of both São Tomé and Principe hold exploitable reserves of oil and gas. Now that a dispute over whether all of the relevant waters are Nigerian or belong to São Tomé and Principe has been settled by sharing whatever is discovered, several companies have begun drilling. Chinese oil entities are expected to join them.
Years ago, São Tomé and Principe, a one-time Portuguese colony, was a major cocoa grower and exporter. Portugal brought slaves to the island from Africa and began cultivating cocoa in the early nineteenth century. Before the Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria became major growers of cocoa, and long before Brazil entered the cocoa trade, São Tomé was a significant exporter of what was refined in chocolate. But now, thanks to drought and mismanagement, São Tomé is but a minor contributor to the global distribution of cocoa. Today the GDP per capita of São Tomé and Principe (approximately $1609 in 2013) is growing at nearly 5 per cent per year thanks to new tourist investments from South Africa and preparations by petroleum companies.
São Tomé and Principe are sparsely populated. Only 192,000 people live on the 386 square miles that comprise the two islands. Its independence from Portugal came in 1975, just after a military coup in Lisbon ended the thirty-six-year dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. Thereafter, under first president Manuel Pinto da Costa, São Tomé aligned itself with the China and the Soviet Union, and with communism, and nationalized its cocoa plantations. That action led to the decline of the quality of the islands’ cocoa, and to the gradual deterioration of São Tomé’s global cocoa export position.
In 1990, Pinto da Costa was ousted, a new constitution was written, and São Tomé moved into the democratic camp, stylizing itself as the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Principe. It recognized Taiwan in 1997.
Earlier this year, Evaristo Carvalho, a former prime minister, minister of defense, and president of the national assembly, became president after Pinto da Costa dropped out of the race. Carvalho is also the vice president of the nation’s ruling Independent Democratic Action (ADI) party. Patrice Emory Trovoada is prime minister and head of government. He also belongs to the ADI Party.
São Tomé and Principe has moved up substantially in the yearly rankings of the Index of African Governance, now listed as number 11. It enjoys a largely free press, with three privately-owned newspapers and one controlled by the government.