Analysts say Beijing can abide Taiwan having a commercial representative office in Somaliland but not political or diplomatic ties

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen describes shared values of ‘freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law’


By Jevans Nyabiage

Beijing may not fight the decision by Taiwan to establish a representative office in Somaliland if the relationship is restricted to commercial ties and not political or diplomatic, analysts say.

On Monday, the Taiwanese flag was hoisted in Hargeisa, the capital of the Republic of Somaliland, marking the official establishment of a representative office in Somaliland.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called the opening of a representative office, “an important milestone for the Taiwan-Somaliland partnership”.

“We are bound together by our shared values of freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law, ideals that will guide our future cooperation,” Tsai said, promising that Taipei would work with Somaliland in areas including agriculture, fisheries, energy, mining, public health, education and information and communications technology (ICT).

Somaliland Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister Yasin Hagi Mohamoud said Somaliland was due to open its representative office in Taipei in the next few weeks. Mohamoud traveled to Taipei in July to sign an agreement ahead of the opening of the offices.

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China’s foreign ministry said Beijing opposed the establishment of any official institution and any official exchanges between Taiwan and Somaliland. “There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday.

But analysts say Beijing can live with Taipei having a commercial representative office in Somaliland as it does in several countries in which it has offices. It is a common practice for Taipei to have trade offices, even in countries where it has no diplomatic relations.

David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International ­Affairs, said the decision to have offices mattered more to Somaliland than to Taiwan, which is recognized by 14 countries. Somaliland is not recognized by any country.

“Exchanging ‘representative offices’ does not constitute diplomatic recognition,” Shinn said.

Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn

Somaliland maintains representative offices in 12 countries and also has 18 honorary consuls without formal offices in other countries. Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Turkey have consulates in Hargeisa and Denmark, Germany, Britain, the European Union and the United Nations all have offices there as well.

Taiwan also has trade offices in a number of countries, including five in Africa that do not recognize Taipei. Besides the 14 embassies in the countries with which it has diplomatic relations, Taiwan maintained 93 representative offices in 2019 in countries that it did not have formal diplomatic relations. In 2019, some 69 countries maintained embassies, consulates, or missions in Taiwan.

ESwatini – which dropped its colonial-era name of Swaziland two years ago – is the only African country that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Since the 1990s, when Beijing aggressively moved into the continent in search of raw materials and markets, it has successfully wooed away every other ally of Taipei in Africa.

In 2016, Gambia switched allegiance, along with the Central African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Burkina Faso cut ties with Taipei for the second time in 2018. It first did so in 1973, before resuming relations in 1994.

Shinn said that for now, Beijing’s first goal was to ensure that the link between Somaliland and Taiwan was restricted to commercial ties and not political or diplomatic representation.

“China will probably offer Somaliland an economic package in the hope it can end the exchange of representative offices,” Shinn said.

In 1991 during Somalia’s civil war when Mohamed Siyad Barre’s government was overthrown, Somaliland has withdrawn itself from its former union with Somalia, created in July 1960 after both countries gained independence from their former colonies, Britain and Italy respectively

The opening of an office happened a week after Beijing sent a delegation to Somaliland, which was seen as part of China’s plan to convince Somaliland to drop its bid to establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China under the one-China policy.

Taiwan recently donated coronavirus testing equipment and medical supplies to help Somaliland fight Covid-19. It has also recently granted postgraduate scholarships to students from Somaliland.

Jevans Nyabiage

Kenyan journalist Jevans Nyabiage is South China Morning Post’s first Africa correspondent. Based in Nairobi, Jevans keeps an eye on China-Africa relations and also Chinese investments, ranging from infrastructure to energy and metal, on the continent.

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