Forging bonds: People-to-People diplomacy between Taiwan and Somaliland

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The pivotal role of non-presidential signatories, particularly foreign ministers, is crucial.

In an era where traditional diplomatic norms face challenges, Taiwan and Somaliland, two de facto states not recognized by the UN and a majority of countries, are pioneering a unique approach toward international relations. Through people-to-people diplomacy, they navigate the complexities of non-recognition, forging meaningful connections that transcend conventional state boundaries. 

The 1961 Vienna Convention establishes a comprehensive framework for initiating, sustaining, and concluding diplomatic relations, based on mutual consent among sovereign states. International diplomacy typically unfolds on significant platforms, with countries adhering to established diplomatic protocols that emphasize formal state-to-state interactions. However, unique scenarios arise when entities such as Somaliland and Taiwan, which operate under the cloak of international non-recognition, engage in diplomacy. Taiwan was a founding member of the UN in 1945 under the name the Republic of China, but was replaced by the People’s Republic of China in 1971 under UN Resolution 2758. It’s noteworthy that this resolution doesn’t say anything about Taiwan not being able to join the UN under a different name. It currently maintains full diplomatic relations with 12 countries. Likewise, after an unsuccessful union with Southern Somalia, a former Italian colony that began on July 1, 1960, Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared its independence from the Republic of Somalia on May 18, 1991. 

Taiwan and Somaliland hold strategic significance that  is drawing major global powers into a new cold war competition. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is vital to the global economy due to its dominant role in semiconductor manufacturing — a fact highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when disruptions in chip supply impacted industries worldwide. Similarly, Somaliland’s Berbera Port majority-owned by UAE-based DP World and the prospects of the recent MOU with Ethiopia, is emerging as a focal point due to its strategic location and potential to serve as a shipping and military hub, challenging Djibouti’s long-standing dominance in the Horn of Africa.

Djibouti’s geostrategic importance has historically been tied to its proximity to the Bab el-Mandab Strait, a vital maritime choke point through which over 20,000 ships pass annually. In 2023, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait handled 12 percent of global maritime traffic, including 75 percent of European exports. For trade between Northern Europe and Asia, the alternative to this route is a 6,500 km detour around the Cape of Good Hope. Its location has made it a nexus for international military presence, hosting bases from the United States, China, France, Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. The substantial fees paid by the U.S. and China for their bases underscore the location’s strategic value.

However, Somaliland’s Berbera Port is well-positioned to challenge this dominance. It offers a strategic alternative to Djibouti, particularly as it aligns itself with regional powers like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, potentially shifting regional dominance in its favor. The competition for influence in Somaliland and the Horn of Africa mirrors broader global rivalries. On one side are Western nations led by the U.S. and U.K., along with allies like Taiwan and the UAE, which has a military base and a representative office in Somaliland. On the other side are BRICS nations, with Russia recently re-establishing a presence in Eritrea and China working alongside regional partners like Ethiopia and Somalia, despite the U.S. announcing new military bases in five Somali cities. Somaliland thus stands as a potential hotspot of global competition, where strategic interests and alliances could redefine the balance of power in the region.

Thus both Taiwan and Somaliland are compelled to innovate within the realm of international relations, fostering subtle, people-centered engagements over formal diplomatic ties. This approach is embodied through the establishment of representative offices — the “Taiwan Representative Office” in Hargeisa on August 17, 2020, and the “Somaliland Representative Office” in Taipei on September 9, 2020. These offices operate under a nomenclature that strategically avoids the term ‘embassy’ to mitigate issues surrounding international recognition

People-to-people diplomacy: Navigating terminology and engagement

The ties between Somaliland and Taiwan are exemplified by a unique model of international engagement, distinctly manifested in the establishment of the “Taiwan Representative Office” in Hargeisa and the “Somaliland Representative Office” in Taipei. These entities were officially established following a significant agreement signed by the foreign ministers of both regions on February 26, 2020, in Taipei. This event marked a pivotal moment in the diplomatic landscapes of both regions, as they navigated the complex terrain of international politics without formal state recognition. 

Avoiding the conventional terminology of “embassies” and “formal diplomatic relations,”  the use of “representative offices” and terms like “ties” or “highly official relations” signifies a strategic and cautious approach to diplomacy. The success of the Taiwan-Somaliland model in modern diplomacy is becoming increasingly evident. In August 2021, just a year after establishing the Taiwan Representative Office in the Republic of Somaliland in Hargeisa, Taiwan replicated this approach by opening a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius, Lithuania. Notably, the formal designation of the Republic of China (ROC) was once again eschewed in favor of the Taiwan representative office, aligning with what certain scholars term as the “Strategic Logic of Taiwanization”.This concept underscores how Taiwan’s growing national identity serves as a strategic response to China’s expanding military prowess. This nomenclature not only respects the delicate sensitivities surrounding their international recognition but also emphasizes a commitment to foster connections on a people-to-people basis rather than traditional state-to-state diplomatic frameworks. 

Leveraging shared values and stability

Somaliland and Taiwan, each navigating unique international landscapes, capitalize on their distinctive political systems and shared democratic values to bolster their international standing. Somaliland’s “pastoral democracy” which blends traditional clan-based governance with modern democratic processes, offers a model of stability and participatory governance. This system, detailed in the studies carried out by scholars such as Ioan Lewis and Abdi Ismail Samatar, showcases how such governance structures stand in stark contrast to the more centralized and often tumultuous political landscapes typical of the Horn of Africa.

Similarly, Taiwan presents itself as a beacon of progressive democracy in East Asia. Its vibrant civil society and successful democratic processes, as institutionalized since its separation from mainland China in 1949, serve as a model for participatory governance globally. This democratic resilience is further underscored by Taiwan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen its international presence and relationships, as evidenced by the establishment of the Taiwan Representative Office in Hargeisa on February 26, 2020. 

Addressing formal diplomatic challenges through socio-cultural initiatives and trade in Somaliland-Taiwan relations

Since initiating informal ties in February 2020, Taiwan and Somaliland have developed their partnership through significant educational, agricultural, and technological programs, alongside cultural exchanges. This cooperation, characterized by impactful, developmental rather than purely political maneuvers, began with the establishment of representative offices in Taipei and Hargeisa.

In 2021, Taiwan introduced scholarships for Somaliland students in crucial fields like engineering, healthcare, and agriculture, fostering foundational relationships between future leaders and communities. That same year, Taiwan supported Somaliland’s agricultural sector by setting up a demonstration farm 45 km outside Hargeisa to introduce advanced practices and technologies aimed at improving local agricultural production and quality.

Technological collaboration was also strengthened in March 2021 when both regions signed a comprehensive IT cooperation agreement to enhance Somaliland’s government digitization, including training for local staff and upgrading internet systems for e-government initiatives.

Moreover, on July 31, 2023, Taiwan and Somaliland signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Strengthening Business and Trade Relations,” aimed at fostering bilateral exchanges and exploring opportunities in trade, investment, mining, and oil resources, based on Somaliland’s rich natural resources including minerals, livestock, and marine fisheries.

The strategic role of foreign Ministers in Taiwan-Somaliland diplomacy

In the complex realm of international diplomacy between Taiwan and Somaliland, the pivotal role of non-presidential signatories, particularly foreign ministers, is crucial. This strategy was highlighted on February 26, 2020, when Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Yasin Haji Mohamoud convened in Taipei to sign the agreement establishing representative offices in both Taipei and Hargeisa. 

By utilizing high-level officials who are not national leaders, both entities effectively mitigate potential repercussions from other countries and international bodies. This deliberate and strategic layer of diplomacy is geared towards building enduring relationships and maintaining a low profile to avoid controversies that could draw negative attention or provoke retaliation.