Without fanfare and much to the surprise of many observers, on February 26, 2020, the foreign ministers of Taiwan and Somaliland met in Taipei and signed an agreement establishing representative offices in Taipei and Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, an unrecognized state of 4 million inhabitants broke away from Somalia in 1991. For China and most governments in the world, this was a non-event: the establishment of “political relations” between two non-states – or to be more accurate, two states that fully exist according to the Montevideo Convention of 1933, but whose international status is weak or non-existent.
Yet, for Taiwan, and to some extent also for Somaliland, this has been a small victory that could contribute to the consolidation of their statehood as well as their international outreach. The real question is how long that victory can last.
Since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in 2016, the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan’s official name, has lost most of its remaining African allies (among them Burkina Faso and Sao Tome and Principe). The only friend in Africa that Taiwan has kept is Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), a small monarchy that is currently facing strong pressure, both from domestic political forces that want to compel it to democratize and from the former Chinese ambassador to South Africa, who has been trying for a few years to convince Eswatini to change sides.
Thus, when announced by Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on July 1, 2020, the establishment of the establishment of “highly official relations” or what is sometimes called “highly political relations” between Taiwan and Somaliland was considered as timely breakthrough. It not only gives Taipei another connection to the African continent, but sets up a new model of meaningful, although not formally diplomatic, relations that could be extended to other states.
Taiwan’s New Model of Political Relations
Tsai’s ambition has clearly been to thwart China’s plan to isolate Taiwan diplomatically by making it more visible on the world map as Taiwan, rather than just as “Taipei” or “Chinese Taipei” (as in the Olympics). In August 2021, a year after Taipei had established its Taiwan Representative Office in the Republic of Somaliland in Hargeisa, it opened a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius, Lithuania, leading Beijing to retaliate by recalling its ambassador from the country. These two small victories could be followed by others, in a domino effect, as more European nations, like Czechia, are tempted to upgrade their relationship with Taiwan.
In the week I spent in Somaliland in August 2021, I could easily assess the importance that Taiwan gives to this new quasi-diplomatic outpost in East Africa. The mission of Allen Chen-hwa Lou, the Taiwanese representative in Hargeisa, and his nine-person team, which also includes another four diplomats, two agricultural experts, and two technical experts, is not only to develop bilateral relations with a poor but democratic de facto state that badly needs development assistance. It is also to use Hargeisa as a base to help Taiwan reach out to the nearby countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea) and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, and Burundi).
As in the case of Lithuania, the Taiwanese government and its diplomats in Hargeisa insist upon the values of democracy and freedoms shared by both countries. Indeed, although one can rapidly see the limits of Somaliland’s clan-based and male-dominated democracy, this state is politically much more open than any other country in the Horn of Africa and perhaps in East Africa (Kenya excepted). After the May 2021 legislative and local elections, the two opposition parties took control of Somaliland’s Parliament, forcing the ruling party to reach a consensus with its opponents to pass any future law. Its large diaspora, mainly based in the United States and in Europe, has helped Somaliland consolidate its democracy since it enacted a new constitution in 2000.
Somaliland’s Geostrategic and Economic Value
Nonetheless, this is far from being the only value of Somaliland in the eyes of Taiwan. Its political stability, its relative security, and more importantly, its geostrategic location and the economic role it plays in the Horn of Africa also explain Taiwan’s interest in this country, an interest that started to emerge as early as 2009.
Taiwan is in particular trying to take advantage of Berbera port’s recent expansion by Dubai’s DP World (completed in June 2021, after it was kicked out of Djibouti and replaced by China Harbor) and the Berbera economic corridor to Ethiopia, to enhance Taiwan’s economic presence in the region. In early November 2021, Taipei will organize in Hargeisa a “Taiwan Expo 2021 in Somaliland” aimed at attracting Taiwanese companies and convincing them to invest in the special economic zone (SEZ) set up by DP World outside Berbera, in which 14 United Arab Emirates (UAE) companies have already committed to invest. The future expansion of Berbera port and Ethiopia’s intention to rely on transit through Somaliland, rather than Djibouti, for up to 30 percent of its imports by sea are conducive to stimulating the presence of Taiwan and Asian countries’ economic presence in Somaliland.
Taiwan is also using Somaliland as a demonstration ground for its own model of development assistance, prioritizing maritime security, fisheries, agriculture, technology, green energy, and health care and involving three major Taiwanese actors: the government, the business community, and NGOs. Unwilling and unable to fund big infrastructure projects, Taiwan is not going to become a new source of debt but rather a source of know how and capacity building.
By August 2021, the International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF) of Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry had already started to implement three small but meaningful projects: one three-year humanitarian project aimed at improving maternal and infant health care, in cooperation with Edna Adan University Hospital, a private institution based in Hargeisa; and two technical cooperation projects, the first one (five years) in agriculture to improve the production and quality of vegetables and fruit with the help of a demonstration farm located 45 km outside of Hargeisa, and the second one (three years) in technology to enhance Somaliland’s e-government capability and better fight against cybercrime. (The value of these projects has not been published, but is probably around few million U.S. dollars each.)
In February 2021, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry in cooperation with the TSMC Charity Foundation donated masks and PPE to Somaliland to fight against COVID-19. Moreover, Taiwanese government geologists will soon start mapping part of the territory, inducing Taiwanese mining companies to invest. And Step 30 International Ministries, a Taiwanese Christian NGO that distributes second-hand shoes, clothes, and school bags, and is already active in Kenya, is about to move into Somaliland.
Somaliland Is Not Isolated; Neither Is Taiwan
Taiwan is not the only country with a presence in Somaliland, which has 22 representative offices of its own abroad. Motivated by pragmatism, several other nations have various forms of representation there. Turkey has a General Consulate officially reporting to Mogadishu but in reality to Ankara – the Taiwanese and Turkish flags are the only two big foreign flags flying in Hargeisa’s sky. Britain, Denmark, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the UAE also have offices in Somaliland. Egypt and Czechia are also interested in developing relations, particularly in cultural and educational cooperation. Some U.N. organizations, as the WHO and the UNICEF, have a presence in Somaliland, formally part of their Somalia operations, as well. Although the European Union does not have any permanent presence in Somaliland, it regularly sends missions there to manage its aid programs.
While a few American nationals, teaching in private universities or involved in NGO work (such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund), reside in Somaliland, one can only deplore the absence of any U.S. representation in this country, an anomaly that some in Washington are trying to change. Nonetheless, the U.S. government discreetly supported Taiwan’s initiative.
Of course, China has tried to disrupt Taiwan’s plan. After Somaliland Foreign Minister Yasin Haji Mohamoud visited Taiwan and met Tsai in February 2020, and before Taiwan’s Representative Office opened, Beijing sent envoys to Hargeisa to try to convince Somaliland authorities to change their mind. China’s ambassador in Mogadishu, Tan Jian, and Zhou Yuxiao, Chinese ambassador to the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation, collectively visited seven times during this period. Zhou made various offers to Somaliland President Bihi Abdi, whom he eventually managed to meet, including the opening of a “liaison office” and the construction of roads and airports in exchange for the closure of Taiwan Representative Office, but to no avail.
In July 2021, China and Somalia agreed to conduct joint naval patrols in the Red Sea, including along the coast of Somaliland. It was a way for Beijing to show its displeasure with Hargeisa’s new Taiwanese connection.
But to date, the Somaliland government seems to be unwilling to change its mind. On August 17, the vice president of the Republic of Somaliland, Abdirahman Abdallahi Ismail Saylici, and half a dozen ministers attended the ceremony held in Grand Haadi Hotel to celebrate the first anniversary of the Taiwan Office’s establishment. On this occasion, Taiwan made public the distribution of 20 scholarships to Somaliland students (including four women), who will go to Taiwan to study engineering, health care, medical management, water conservation, or tropical agriculture.
How Long Can the Taiwan-Somaliland Honeymoon Last?
Given China’s track record of wooing away Taiwan’s allies, the main question now is how long Somaliland will continue to rebuff Beijing.
In Berbera, I bumped into a dozen Chinese engineers and technicians involved in the maintenance of DP Port container cranes, of course made in China and manufactured by Shanghai’s ZPMC Company, which controls 70 percent of the world market. It was just a small sign that Chinese companies will get involved in Somaliland’s economy and probably also its new Berbera corridor and SEZ. This was also a result of the Zhou-Bihi meeting in August 2020. In other words, Beijing’s pressure on Hargeisa to drop Taiwan is likely to increase.
Nonetheless, Somaliland is close to the United States and attracted by Taiwan’s shared political values, its own “economic miracle,” and generous development assistance. In the foreseeable future, then, it is unlikely that Somaliland will succumb to China’s siren song.
By Jean-Pierre Cabestan
Jean-Pierre Cabestan is a senior research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research and a research professor at Hong Kong Baptist University