Taiwan-Somaliland Relations: Impact on the Future of Chinese Influence in the Horn of Africa

Ahmed Askar | 10 Aug 2020

In July 2020, Taiwan and Somaliland announced their intention to establish reciprocal representative offices to broaden their communication with the outside world. A diplomatic victory for both sides, it also represents a paradigm shift that will have repercussions for the Horn of Africa and Somaliland and for major world powers, especially China, which has rejected the move. Meanwhile, the USA has welcomed diplomatic engagement between Taiwan and Somaliland, leading some observers to think that the offices will be established under the auspices of the USA, which is potentially risky for all parties in the region, given the divergent stances on the agreement. The move could result in a transformation in Chinese policy toward the Horn of Africa in particular, and toward Africa in general, during the coming period.

Indications of interest between Taiwan and Somaliland

  • Taiwan and Somaliland have maintained relations since 2009, cooperating in a range of areas, including maritime security, health care, and education. In February 2020, they signed a major strategic agreement to set up reciprocal representation offices, but it was not made public until July. Mohamed Hagi has been appointed as the Somaliland representative in Taipei, and Lou Chen-hwa as his Taiwanese counterpart in Hargeisa. The agreement aims to foster cooperation on shared issues to strengthen political, social, and economic ties between the two countries, with a focus on agriculture, education, energy, fisheries, health, information and communication, and mining.
  • Although this strengthening of bilateral relations falls short of full diplomatic recognition, it is a positive step toward possibly establishing official diplomatic relations in the future and toward obtaining international recognition. It also represents a diplomatic re‑energization for both parties, as their ability to persuade any international actor to recognize either of them has waned over the past few years. The last time that Taiwan managed to establish relations with another State was in 2007 with the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia.[1]
  • To an extent, Taiwan and Somaliland share similar geopolitical circumstances, which makes the new pairing quite natural. They are largely unrecognized by the international community – even the Member States of the United Nations – despite both countries hosting and having representative offices in several countries: Taiwan is unofficially represented in 15 countries, while Somaliland has representative offices in 22 countries around the world.[2]
  • Taiwan engages in “dollar diplomacy” with its diplomatic allies, including Somaliland. This involves delivering infrastructure development projects and aid in various areas in exchange for providing diplomatic support and defending Taiwan’s interests in the international organizations from which it is excluded, despite pressure from China to prevent that from happening.[3]
  • In 2015, under a memorandum of understanding signed between Taiwan, the European Union, and a US organization for navigation safety systems on the high seas, Taiwan pledged $166,000 toward the creation of the Maritime Communications Initiative to ensure marine safety along the coast of Somalia, provide security for local shipping traffic, and encourage the adoption of port management practices. The initiative will launch five communications systems and safety centers in several Somali cities, including Berbera in Somaliland.[4]
  • Taiwan and Somaliland cooperate on education, in particular higher education, and have held a number of meetings on the development of Somaliland’s education sector.[5] Five Somaliland universities received portable computer devices from Taiwan in 2016 in the first such initiative by the country.[6] In 2021, Taiwan will also start offering educational scholarships to Somaliland university graduates in the fields of engineering, fisheries, marine management, health care, and medicine.[7]
  • The medical sector enjoys considerable importance in Somaliland–Taiwan relations. Taiwan trained 23 medical professionals in Somaliland through its health‑care worker training program, sent a 32-member medical delegation to provide free medical services to patients in public hospitals, internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers in January 2020,[8] and set up free clinics in 10 regions in Somaliland to serve 2,880 patients.[9] Taiwan has sent medical equipment and staff to the country to strengthen its capacity to fight the COVID‑19 pandemic,[10] donating about 150,000 conventional surgical masks and items of protective equipment in June 2020.[11] Somaliland has also sent five doctors to Taiwan on educational scholarships to train and broaden their medical experience.[12]
  • Taiwan is preparing to carry out development projects in Hargeisa through the Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund, focusing on capacity building. During a visit to Somaliland by a Taiwanese delegation in November 2019, both countries explored ways of forging strategic partnerships between their financial institutions, especially their central banks.[13]
  • Taiwan has sent around 300 tons of white rice to Somaliland to help it to weather the impact of the desert locust swarms that have appeared in the Horn of Africa in recent months.[14]
  • A number of reports indicate that Taiwan is considering establishing a military base in Somaliland as a next step in strengthening bilateral diplomatic ties. If that happens, Taiwan will gain a foothold in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, close to the Chinese military base in Djibouti.[15]

Drivers

a) Taiwan

  • This step is a change in tempo and a symbolic breakthrough for Taiwan’s diplomatic fortunes, given its dwindling number of supporters around the world since 2016 as a result of Chinese attempts to undermine Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other States. Only 15 States now recognize Taiwan. However, as Taiwan starts to gain new, unexpected supporters who are not indebted to China or the international community, it can whittle away at the Chinese grip that has restricted its room for maneuver in many parts of the world and has lost it a third of its allies.
  • Taiwan wants to create ties with more States, as greater international recognition gives it more legitimacy and provides the government with a voice in international organizations such as the UN. It also helps to create a network of unrecognized or partially recognized States, which opens the door to the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations between Taiwan and certain regional non-State actors, such as the Polisario Front in the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which is recognized as a part of Morocco.
  • Taiwan has the opportunity to benefit economically and commercially from the Port of Berbera, and to exploit Somaliland’s rich mineral resources, including significant untapped oil and gas potential. Investment in these sectors by Taiwanese companies and entrepreneurs could be profitable.
  • Somaliland and the Horn of Africa have an important geopolitical position. By strengthening its relations with Somaliland, Taiwan can secure a foothold in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea and ensure the safety of maritime traffic in the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Somaliland therefore represents the gateway into East Africa for Taiwan and an opportunity to challenge China’s considerable influence there.[16]
  • Providing aid to Somaliland serves Taiwan’s aspirations of joining the list of peace-building States and aid donors in the international community.
  • Given the increasing importance that Taiwan places on Africa, it is working hard to restore its relations on the continent after Beijing successfully pressurized almost all African States to break ties with Taiwan. In 2018, Burkina Faso switched from Taipei to Beijing, leaving the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) as Taiwan’s sole African ally.[17] Consequently, establishing a relationship with Somaliland is a motivator for Taiwan, which has been trying to gain or maintain diplomatic recognition from various international actors for years.[18]
  • Taiwan aspires to distinguish itself as a key player in the Horn of Africa, thus defying its Chinese adversary, even though it does not have a diplomatic presence in any Horn country and has never engaged in peacemaking arrangements in the region.[19]
  • Taiwan stresses that it is not a part of China and has the right to establish relations with other States, and that strengthening bilateral relations with Somaliland is in the interest of furthering world peace and the prosperity and economic development of both parties as democratic countries.[20]

b) Somaliland

  • Somaliland could use the establishment of relations with Taiwan to continue pushing for the international recognition that is has pursued since it unilaterally declared independence from Somalia in 1991.[21]
  • Somaliland may be seeking to improve relations with Taiwan to signal stronger interest in forging ties with the USA, rather than China, in the midst of the US–China trade war, as the USA has historically been Taiwan’s security guarantor against the threat of Chinese invasion.[22] It could also benefit from US protection under the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, passed by the United States Congress on March 26, 2020, which concerns the protection and strengthening of Taiwan’s international allies in response to China’s policy of preventing other States from recognizing or having diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Section 3 of the Act expressly encourages bilateral diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and discourages countries from taking any action that would undermine efforts in that regard.[23]
  • Somaliland aims to broaden diplomatic relations with more States, and to encourage regional and international powers to establish relations with it and to invest in Somaliland.[24]
  • Somaliland could capitalize on Taiwan’s capacities in many areas such as health, technological advancement, the maritime sector, and oil and gas, and could obtain more aid, Taiwan being the largest of its diplomatic allies in terms of the size of its economy and its population.
  • Somaliland could benefit from the significant experience of the Taiwanese navy in order to develop its own navy and naval fleet and better protect its strategic interests and regional waters.
  • Somaliland could leverage Taiwan’s experience on how to navigate its diplomatic situation. Over the decades, Taiwan has been able to establish strong unofficial relations with countries such as the USA and Japan, and the lessons that it has learned in developing informal ties with global and regional players could benefit Somaliland. Taiwan could even offer guidance on building relations with international organizations, which it has recently been struggling to join. Somaliland might then be able to follow in Taiwan’s footsteps and successfully join the World Health Organization (WHO).[25]
  • Somaliland may be responding to the failure of the meetings held with the Government of Somalia on June 14, 2020 in Djibouti by expanding new diplomatic relations with new global actors.[26]
  • Somaliland may be hoping to attract foreign military bases, given the huge amounts of revenue that they generate; this equates to selling the strategic position that distinguishes the countries of the region.[27]

Regional and international positions

Taiwan’s attempt to revive its diplomatic presence in Africa by signing a reciprocal representation agreement has sparked a wave of different reactions. China and Somalia have condemned the move, in their continuing efforts to prevent the two countries from seceding, whereas Washington has welcomed it.

Federal Government of Somalia: In a statement issued on July 4, 2020, the Somali presidential office said that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo) denounced Taiwan’s violation of Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that he had met with the Chinese ambassador to emphasize Mogadishu’s commitment to the One China Policy.[28] This approach is based on Somalia’s firm official position regarding its territorial integrity and the complete rejection of Somaliland’s independence from the country, as demonstrated by the results of the recent Djibouti meetings between Somalia and Somaliland.

China: Beijing has always maintained that Taiwan is part of its territory, and uses its political, diplomatic, and economic influence to isolate Taiwan from the international community. It therefore rejected the agreement signed between Somaliland and Taiwan, accusing the latter of attempting to undermine Somalia’s territorial integrity and violate its sovereignty.[29] Beijing has also opposed the establishment of reciprocal representative offices, and has intensified its meetings with Somaliland representatives in order to frustrate relations between Somaliland and Taiwan. It also tried to tempt Hargeisa into reneging on its agreement with Taipei, with offers of a representative office for Beijing in Somaliland and an aid and development package including road, airport, and other infrastructure. Somaliland, however, rejected the conditional offer.[30]

USA: Although Washington does not recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan or Somaliland, it unexpectedly issued a statement hailing the recent diplomatic relations achieved between the two parties as a tremendous step, and welcomed Taiwan’s consolidated involvement in east Africa.[31] This comes against the backdrop of continuing US efforts to boost the number of Taiwan’s allies in the international community and to persuade States not to switch allegiance to China. Meanwhile, relations between the two super powers are deteriorating as the USA ratchets up political, economic, and diplomatic pressure on China.[32]

Assessment of potential risks

  • The recent agreement poses huge challenges for the Horn of Africa and for regional and international actors. Such a move increases insecurity in the region, and allows many actors in the Horn of Africa to compete over Somaliland. Moreover, it may attract more foreign forces, thereby complicating political dynamics in the region.[33]
  • Somaliland may become a hotspot in the cold war emerging between the USA and China as competition between them escalates.[34]
  • Somaliland may pay a high price for defying China and establishing relations with Taiwan. Beijing could stand in the way of any attempt by Somaliland to achieve international recognition and could prevent Chinese products from reaching the country. There are also growing fears that China may support and arm the central government in Mogadishu to achieve qualitative superiority over Somaliland.
  • China may punish Somaliland by pulling Chinese companies out of the country before Taiwanese investors arrive.
  • There is mounting concern over the risk of Balkanization in the Horn of Africa as a result of the recognition of Somaliland. Separatism in the region and in Africa may also become stronger, since Somaliland does not consider itself part of Somalia, just as Taiwan does not see itself as part of China.
  • The Federal Government of Somalia may refuse to recognize Taiwan and may sever ties with it, as it did in 2018 with the Republic of Guinea in response to it welcoming the then-President of Somaliland.[35]
  • Somaliland’s hosting of Taiwanese destroyers and submarines to participate in anti-piracy patrols in the Red Sea may threaten the Chinese military base in Djibouti and neutralize the Chinese navy in the Gulf of Aden.
  • Somaliland–Taiwan relations may hit China’s Belt and Road Initiative hard, and may threaten the country’s String of Pearls project in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Investment in the Port of Berbera could lead to a degree of Chinese influence, and to Taiwan strengthening its relations with Ethiopia as a regional power in the Horn of Africa and with other States in the region.
  • Plans for Chinese oil and gas pipelines connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti may breakdown if cheaper alternatives are found in Somaliland through the strategic Port of Berbera.
  • Somaliland has growing strategic importance for the USA as a potential base for relocating its operations in Africa, particularly given the Chinese military base in Djibouti. This is a clear threat to Chinese interests in the region.[36]
  • Some African States may be averse to siding with Somaliland’s demands for separation and international recognition. The same is true for Taiwan in relation to provoking the hostility of Somalia and the African Union, since it needs to gain their support if it is to participate in key international organizations such as the WHO.
  • The move may make it more difficult for the Somali Government to unify the country, which will prolong instability and encourage other resistant states to follow in Somaliland’s footsteps, thereby deepening the crisis of the Somali State.[37]

Future Chinese influence in the region

  • In the coming period, Beijing is expected to exert further political, diplomatic, and economic pressure on Somaliland to revoke its agreement with Taiwan, and to tempt it with a package of aid and investment projects.
  • Chinese–US competition in the Horn of Africa is likely to intensify, which will have repercussions for the geopolitical landscapes of the States in the region, jeopardizing regional stability and security.
  • International competition in the Horn of Africa is also expected to increase as more international and regional powers jostle for influence, some of which intend to establish military bases in States in the region.
  • China is likely to intensify its efforts to engage politically in certain issues in the Horn of Africa in order to counter US influence and to ensure that Taiwan does not forge new relations with any State or entity in the region in the period ahead. In addition, China will probably consolidate its military presence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab Strait in light of concern over the increasing involvement of Taiwan in the region with US support.

References

[1] “Taiwan strengthens ties with Somaliland”, Emirates Business, July 1, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Cax2L6.

[2] The UK, Denmark, Ethiopia, Kenya, Turkey, Djibouti, Canada, the EU, and the UN all have representative offices in Somaliland.

[3] Ben Blanchard, “Outflanked by China in Africa, Taiwan eyes unrecognized Somaliland”, Reuters, July 1, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PAaLJH.

[4] “Taiwan Pledges to Establish an Advanced Maritime Communication System in Somalia”, New Somalia, December 16, 2015. Available at: https://bit.ly/2F3Jk96.

[5] “Somaliland & Taiwan Discuss Corporation [sic] in Higher Education”, Somaliland Standard, July 15, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3iqnomL.

[6] “Somaliland: Taiwan Treats Local Universities with Computers”, Somaliland Sun, August 27, 2016. Available at: https://bit.ly/3af0WdK.

[7] “Taiwan Offers Scholarships to Somaliland Students”, Somaliland Standard, July 17, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/33JbujV.

[8] “Taiwan Medical Team Arrive in Somaliland”, Somaliland Standard, January 30, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fEBrng.

[9] “Taiwan Venturing Into East Africa Via Somaliland”, East African Business Week News (EABW), July 3, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2DHEwFO.

[10] “Taiwan Sends Medical Aid to Somaliland to Fight the Coronavirus”, Somaliland Standard, June 28, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PASQT8.

[11] “Closer Ties with Somaliland Will Benefit Both Sides”, Somaliland Standard, July 2, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PzPZK9.

[12] “Somaliland: 5 Doctors Will Travel to Taiwan in order to Attend Training”, Somaliland Standard, February 27, 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PzEsuv.

[13] “Somaliland: Central Bank Governor Receives Taiwanese Delegation”, Somaliland Standard, November 5, 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3gGjmX8.

[14] “Closer Ties with Somaliland Will Benefit Both Sides”, ibid.

[15] Odindo Ayieko, “Taiwan Finalizes Plan To Establish Military Base In Somaliland”, EABW News, July 6, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ij3w5g.

[16] “Somaliland: Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Speaks About Relations with Taiwan”, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, July 20, 2020. Available at: https://unpo.org/article/21994.

[17] David Pilling and Kathrin Hille, “Taiwan and Somaliland Risk China’s Ire with Bilateral Ties”, Financial Times, London, July 1, 2020. Available at: https://on.ft.com/2PsfXPE.

[18] Adrianna Zhang, “Somalia: Taiwan-China Diplomatic Competition Comes to Somaliland”, All Africa, July 7, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3kl2WWk.

[19] “Somaliland: Isolated Taiwan Joins the Anti-SL Recognition Wagon”, Somaliland Sun, September 19, 2015. Available at: https://bit.ly/3klNsS9.

[20] “Somalia: Taiwan Slams Chinese Criticism of Somaliland Ties”, All Africa, July 7, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2ERGa8b.

[21] Abdulkadir Khalif, “China Rejects Taiwan Bid for Diplomatic Relations with Somaliland”, The East African, July 5, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2XDqkVv.

[22] Brian Hioe, “Taiwan to Set Up Representative Office in Somaliland”, New Bloom, July 6, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3kgBo4x.

[23] “Breaking – Somaliland is Preparing to Recognize Taiwan”, Somali Chronicle, August 3, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ij2kP5.

[24] Paul Antonopoulos, “Taiwan & Somaliland to Open Representative Offices”, Belt & Road News, July 9, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30z1lEt.

[25] Thomas J. Shattuck, “Taiwan Finds an Unexpected New Friend in Somaliland”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, July 1, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30AUryF.

[26] “The Djibouti Near Miss and the New Taiwan Connection”, Somali Chronicle, July 11, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30znXVs.

[27] “Why Would Taiwan Need a Base in Somaliland?”, Somaliland Sun, July 11, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30GJnjD.

[28] Eric Olander, “Both China and Somalia Equally Upset about Taiwan’s Entreaties with Somaliland”, The China Africa Project, July 6, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3ijGBH2.

[29] Nick Aspinwall, “Taiwan Throws a Diplomatic Curveball by Establishing Ties With Somaliland”, The Diplomat, July 10, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2DurICR.

[30] “President Bihi Rejected Chinese Delegation’s Offer of Conditional Development Package”, Somali Chronicle, August 6, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fE4jfg.

[31] Derek Otieno, “White House Happy with Somaliland, Taiwan Diplomatic Relationship”, PD Online, July 16, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30BEvMD.

[32] “Taiwan Strengthens Ties with Breakaway Somaliland”, The Japan Times, July 1, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2XFQd73.

[33] David Monyae, “Taiwanese-Somaliland Deal Bad for Africa”, Independent Online (IOL), July 15, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2PvqYjk.

[34] Eric Olander, “Taiwan-Somaliland Deal Sparks Debate about Taipei’s Presence in Africa”, The China Africa Project, July 17, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/31xL0iA.

[35] “Irked China and Somalia React Negatively to Somaliland Taiwan Ties”, Middle East North Africa Financial Network (MENAFN), July 4, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3aeW4oY.

[36] “Geopolitical Implications of Somaliland-Taiwan Diplomatic Relations”, Somaliland Current, July 19, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/33GUmvo.

[37] David Monyae, ibid.

 

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