A Future Outlook: Prospects for Somaliland-Taiwan Relations

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Dr. Mohamed Hagi is the chief representative at the Republic of Somaliland Representative Office in Taiwan

Due to the rapid pace of global transformation, interstate dynamics are perpetually uncertain, influenced by geopolitical shifts, economic incentives, security considerations, and diplomatic strategies. Amidst the dynamic global landscape, two democratic nations—Somaliland and Taiwan, which share the political circumstance of not being members of multilateral organizations like the United Nations—have established official relations that surprise many. Somaliland, a self-governing democratic state situated in the Horn of Africa, aspires to attain international recognition; whereas Taiwan, a dynamic democracy grappling with intricate political obstacles, endeavors to expand its own participation in the international community. As the four-year-old bilateral relationship progresses, it has become increasingly critical to analyze the potential implications for the political relations between Taiwan and Somaliland, as geopolitics often defy predictions.

However, when considering diplomacy and political objectives, the scenario varies. The crucial aspect lies in the essence of the association between Somaliland and Taiwan, as well as the perspectives held by both states. This article elucidates four crucial domains. First, it will explain the basis of the Somaliland-Taiwan partnership, highlighting its distinctiveness and exceptional qualities, as well as the reciprocal advantages it offers. Second, it will provide fresh insights into the contrasting responses of the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the relationship, contrasting Washington’s comparatively limited assistance to China’s assertive reactions. Third, it will examine the pressure exerted by Beijing on Somaliland. Fourth, it will discuss the timely and effective communication of East African countries with Somaliland regarding their opinions and impressions on the relationship. The article concludes by examining the prospects for Taiwan-Somaliland relations over the next four years.

Somaliland-Taiwan Relations

In 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan, two democratic and politically stable countries positioned in very volatile geopolitical regions (the Horn of Africa and the Indo-Pacific), established a strong partnership based on common values and interests. What makes the connection between Taiwan and Somaliland unique is the similarity of their situations. Both countries are not affiliated with multilateral organizations like the United Nations, and they are similarly denied membership in most regional bodies. [1] Nevertheless, they still exert significant influence within and beyond their borders. However, the relationship is based on much more than just shared values and political circumstances. In fact, it is rooted in interests that each country aims to promote.

There are two factors at play in Somaliland’s decision to forge ties with Taiwan. First, petroleum, natural gas, and mineral industries are the primary sectors in which Somaliland pursues investment. Taiwan’s state-owned oil company, Taiwan CPC (台灣中油) has conveyed its interest in undertaking business operations in Somaliland, citing the country’s considerable potential for advancement and progress in these sectors. Moreover, in light of Somaliland’s economic foundation being predominantly trade and livestock-based, with a notable absence of a robust manufacturing sector, the business community generally purchases commodities and finished products through imports. Subsequently, roughly 80 percent of these commodities are re-exported to Ethiopia and other countries. Due to its extant infrastructure and strategic location, Somaliland serves as a vital entry point to the global market and beyond. By enticing Taiwanese investments in the manufacturing sector, Somaliland also hopes to bolster its economic prospects, reduce its high youth unemployment rate, and strengthen its standing as a trade location.

The second rationale behind Somaliland’s decision to establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan was to further its political objectives, and demonstrate its openness to forming new alliances with Western nations—specifically the United States. In 2020, the United States introduced the TAIPEI Act to enhance relations with Taiwan and encourage nations to strengthen their ties with the island. The TAIPEI Act inspired Somaliland to establish connections with Taiwan, aligning its foreign policy goals with those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

On the other hand, Taiwan also stands to gain from its relationship with Somaliland. With Africa emerging as a growing market, Somaliland presents an opportunity for Taiwan to expand its diplomatic and economic presence in East Africa. As the first country in the region that has allowed Taiwan to establish a representative office, Somaliland holds great strategic importance for Taiwan’s engagement in the region. The East Africa region comprises 21 countries, including Somaliland, and is home to nearly 500 million people. Somaliland can act as Taiwan’s gateway for political engagement with nations in East Africa. However, for Taiwan to effectively leverage this opportunity, it must demonstrate the competitiveness of its economic development model as compared to China and other regional powers.

In essence, the relationship between Somaliland and Taiwan benefits both parties. While Somaliland seeks investment and economic growth, Taiwan aims to expand its influence and access to Africa’s emerging markets. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that Taiwan holds a great deal of responsibility in the relationship. Somaliland has already shown goodwill by turning down Beijing’s constant stick and carrot engagements—such as economic assistance and establishing offices in both countries’ capitals—in exchange for severing ties with Taiwan. The success of this partnership depends on Taiwan’s readiness to reciprocate Somaliland’s initiatives and take advantage of the opportunities that arise for the benefit and prosperity of both parties.

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Image: Taiwan Ambassador Allen Lou (羅震華, center left) and Somaliland Minister of Environment and Climate Change Shukri H. Ismail Mohamoud (Bandare) (center right), and other government representatives and representatives of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, sign a Taiwan International Cooperation and Development Fund (ICDF)-funded agreement to support volunteers working on wildlife conservation efforts in Somaliland (December 4, 2022). (Image: ROC Representative Office in Somaliland)

Strategic Ripples: US and Chinese Reactions to the Relationship

The relationship between Taiwan and Somaliland has become an issue, causing contrasting reactions from the United States and China. While Washington cautiously acknowledged Taiwan’s establishment of ties with Somaliland, China responded aggressively by trying to undermine the newfound partnership. Initially, the response from the US administration toward the Taiwan-Somaliland connection seemed lukewarm. Although the White House National Security Council (NSC) tacitly approved the new relations between Taiwan and Somaliland, the State Department continued to follow its “One-Somalia Policy,” refraining from acknowledging Somaliland while exclusively recognizing the Somalian government in Mogadishu. However, within US circles—in Congress and the Pentagon, for instance—there was recognition of Somaliland’s strategic significance and democratic values. The Somaliland Partnership Act was introduced by US Senators Jim Risch (R-ID), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Mike Rounds (R-SD). Its purpose is to mandate that the Department of State provide a report to Congress regarding its engagement with Somaliland, and to advise the Secretary of Defense to conduct a feasibility study before establishing a permanent partnership with Somaliland. Unfortunately, this bill was not executed, and despite nearly four years of Taiwan-Somaliland friendship, the United States has not yet engaged with Somaliland. In practical political terms, this indicates that Washington is effectively undermining Taipei’s crucial foreign policy approach to the African continent.

In contrast, China reacted strongly to the new relationship between Taiwan and Somaliland, viewing it as a challenge to its interests. Beijing employed tactics such as coercion and political pressure in response. Chinese businesses that had previously established a presence in Somaliland abruptly withdrew after the diplomatic shift occurred, leaving gaps in sectors of the economy. Furthermore, China attempted to lure Somaliland with promises of infrastructure development, but made it conditional on severing ties with Taiwan. When attempts to reach a resolution failed, Beijing resorted to more aggressive methods, including interfering in Somaliland’s internal politics and provoking conflict.

This time, Beijing seemingly aimed to destroy Somaliland. In 2023, the US military paid a visit to Berbera’s port ahead of military training operations led by the United States. The site survey came as the US military prepared for Justified Accord 2023, the largest military training exercise in East Africa sponsored by US Africa Command (AFRICOM). The decision enraged China, which orchestrated a proxy war in Somaliland’s eastern district with the assistance of the local residents in Las Anod. Beijing’s principal goal was to thwart the US Justified Accord drill in Berbera. Eventually, China compelled Washington to cancel the military drill after supporting armed groups seeking to secede from Somaliland. In doing so, China’s retaliatory steps successfully hindered US goals in the area. This included preventing the implementation of provisions outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act 2023 (NDAA) and obstructing US African Command‘s operations in Somaliland.

Despite Taiwan’s efforts to gain support from Washington and expose China’s involvement in the Las Anod conflict, the US government chose to acquiesce to Beijing. This underscores the balance of power at play in the region. The different approaches of China and the United States to their ties with Taiwan and Somaliland demonstrate how interests and geopolitical calculations impact dynamics in East Africa. As Taiwan strives to expand its footprint and Somaliland navigates its alliances, this region remains a focus of competition among major world powers.

Africa’s Perspective on Somaliland-Taiwan Relations

The responses of nations to Somaliland and Taiwan ties are intricate and diverse. Many African countries, including those in the Greater Horn of Africa region, have traditionally maintained ties with China. This is mainly due to China’s investments in infrastructure, mining operations, and oil and gas ventures. Chinese investments in Africa’s infrastructure have been significant, encompassing a range of projects such as roads, railways, ports, and airports. For instance, consider the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which was financed and built by China and serves as a transportation link for the entire region. Furthermore, China has made investments in mining activities across countries like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Chinese firms are involved in copper and cobalt mining, respectively. Additionally, Chinese companies have actively participated in oil and gas exploration and production activities in Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan, thereby providing invaluable resources for these nations’ economies.

China’s approach to investing in Africa is often perceived as having relatively few conditions compared to other partners, which makes it an appealing choice for many African countries seeking development assistance. However, concerns have been raised regarding the debt burden that some African nations may face due to loans from China. Consequently, there is a growing interest among some nations to explore models of development assistance that can help them avoid falling into a debt trap.

Considering the significance of maintaining relations with China, most African countries in the Greater Horn of Africa region exercise caution when it comes to establishing connections with Taiwan. Typically, the foreign offices of these nations hesitate to embrace relationships that could potentially strain their existing partnerships. However, there is also a sense of curiosity among nations regarding what Taiwan can bring to the region, especially if Taiwan adopts an approach that benefits Somaliland. If Taiwan can demonstrate success in areas such as infrastructure development, economic growth, and capacity building in Somaliland, some African countries might be more inclined to engage with Taiwan or even establish relations. Although only Somaliland has allowed Taiwan to establish a diplomatic presence, other East African countries may allow Taiwan to expand its presence if its relations with Somaliland succeed in terms of technical assistance, trade, and cultural exchanges.

Take South Africa and Nigeria as examples. As the two biggest economies on the continent, they have already set up trade offices in Taiwan and have allowed Taiwan to establish an office within their respective countries. This reflects a willingness among nations to engage with Taiwan despite potential implications for their relationships with China. Ultimately, African countries are striving to strike a balance between their interests involving China and their aspirations for exploring other partnerships and development opportunities.

Prospects for Further Somaliland-Taiwan Relations

The bond between Somaliland and Taiwan is rock-solid and expanding. What makes this relationship unique is its nature. It is an official relationship in numerous respects, but not diplomatic. Put another way, the bilateral partnership is deemed official due to the signatures of two foreign ministers. On the other hand, it differs from Taiwan’s relationships with its more formal diplomatic allies. In such a case, Somaliland fully understands Taiwan’s economic and security situation, particularly as cross-Strait tensions simmer. Somaliland deeply respects China’s status as a global superpower and its position in the United Nations Security Council. Somaliland’s official relationship with Taiwan does not undermine or disregard China’s legitimacy and importance.

Somaliland sees Taiwan as an entity separate from China and recognizes its positive contributions to the international community. Hence, there is no ambiguity in Somaliland’s stance. Somaliland’s relationship with Taiwan is based on the reality on the ground: respecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and value as a partner, while acknowledging China’s global influence. Taiwan reciprocates this sentiment by recognizing Somalia’s independence and acknowledging Somaliland as a nation based on actual circumstances. This mutual respect forms the foundation of their relationship, without any contradictions.

The main point: Over the past four years, the unique partnership between Somaliland and Taiwan has flourished. However, it is imperative that Taiwan follow Somaliland’s lead in investing more substantially in the relationship, especially as China continues its efforts to pull the two nations apart.

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