In a breakthrough for Taiwan and Somaliland, both sides established representative offices in each other’s capitals. Both territories share similar values and interests while facing similar challenges in gaining international recognition
By I-wei Jennifer Chang
Taiwan has found a new partner in the Horn of Africa. The governments of Taiwan and the small East African territory of Somaliland announced in July that they would be establishing representative offices in each other’s capitals. Subsequently, the Taiwan Representative Office (台灣駐索馬利蘭共和國代表處) opened in Hargeisa on August 17, followed by the establishment of the Somaliland Representative Office in Taiwan (索馬利蘭共和國駐台灣代表處) in Taipei on September 9. Given that Taiwan has “highly official” though “informal state relations” with Somaliland, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said it was sufficient to call its office the “Taiwan Representative Office” without the need for “extra words.” In many other countries, Taiwan’s representative offices are often called “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Offices.” While most international reactions to the announcement have focused on the diplomatic utility, or lack thereof, in this new bilateral relationship, facing similar diplomatic predicaments, Taipei and Hargeisa have found cause for a partnership in their common struggle against neighboring adversaries—China and Somalia, respectively. Taiwan is also poised to work with Somaliland to contribute to peace, security, and economic development in the Horn of Africa.
Common Values and Interests
Somaliland—a self-declared state of 3.9 million people abutting the Gulf of Aden—is not recognized as an independent state by either the international community or the United Nations. Although Somaliland declared independence from Somalia in 1991 as the latter descended into civil war and Hargeisa maintains a functioning government and its own currency, Somaliland remains internationally recognized as a part of Somalia. Hargeisa currently does not have diplomatic relations with any country. Similar to Taiwan—which has 15 diplomatic partners—it aspires to join the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations. As a result, Taipei and Hargeisa have found common cause in creating new pathways to break out of their global diplomatic isolation and gain greater international recognition.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has called Somaliland “a country with a similar concept of democracy and freedom as Taiwan.” Indeed, Somaliland is one of the few functioning democracies on the African continent. Its president and parliament are both directly elected by the people. Although there have been extended delays in its parliamentary elections, Somaliland has undergone three direct presidential elections since 2003 and has made significant progress in transitioning from traditional clan-based politics to a multi-party democratic system. Compared to the instability, terrorism, and destructive internal conflicts plaguing Somalia—often labeled a “failed state”—Somaliland, by contrast, enjoys a stable political situation.
According to Taiwan’s foreign ministry, Taiwan-Somaliland exchanges began in 2009 during the outset of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said in a speech that Taiwan and Somaliland have cooperated in the fields of public health, education, and maritime security. Taiwan’s government has also provided scholarships to college students and graduates from Somaliland. In a move that further cemented growing ties, Wu and Somaliland’s foreign minister, Yasin Hagi Mohamoud, signed a bilateral agreement (中華民國（台灣）政府與索馬利蘭共和國政府雙邊議定書) in February 2020 to mutually set up representative offices. With the establishment of a new representative office in Somaliland, Taiwan now has offices in four African economies – namely, representative offices in Nigeria and South Africa, as well as its embassy in Eswatini, its sole diplomatic ally on the continent.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has recognized that Somaliland occupies a strategically important location. Several countries, including its former colonial ruler the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Turkey, as well as international organizations including the UN and the European Union, have set up representative offices in Somaliland. However, China notably does not have an office in the territory. MOFA has indicated that Taiwan’s establishment of a local representative office will help both states to facilitate dialogue with relevant countries and international organizations. Taipei appointed Lou Chen-hwa (羅震華), a former counselor at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Saudi Arabia, to head its representative office in Hargeisa.
Furthermore, both Taiwan and Somaliland are driven by a desire for mutual and international support to offset the political and security challenges imposed by their larger neighbors—China and Somalia. “We both face external pressures, but are both proud of our sovereignty and ready to defend it,” said Foreign Minister Wu. “Taiwan is ready to work closely with its like-minded partner in the Horn of Africa,” Wu said. As the Red Sea and Horn of Africa become focal points of regional rivalry and major-power competition, Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi said that both sides are motivated by “a spirit of mutual assistance that will never expose any harm whatsoever to the interests of other countries, but rather contributes to international peace and regional economic activities.” With their stable, democratic systems, Taipei and Hargeisa are hoping to draw a clear contrast to China’s expansionist behavior in the region and the corrupt and chaotic situation in Somalia, respectively.
Counter-pressure from Somalia and China
On August 18, immediately following the opening of the Taiwan Representative Office in Somaliland, Somalia’s government issued harsh words for Taipei, accusing it of violating the country’s territorial integrity. Somalia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “The Federal Government of Somalia repudiates such misguided endeavors that seek to sow discord and division among our people.” It called on Taiwan to “cease its misinformed ventures into any part of the territory of the Federal Republic of Somalia.” Mogadishu, whose relationship with Somaliland is similar to China’s approach to Taiwan, is sensitive to any moves that could potentially confer greater diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, with whom tensions remain high.
The Chinese foreign ministry also voiced its opposition to the establishment of official institutions and exchanges between Taiwan and Somaliland. Beijing has had formal diplomatic relations with Somalia since 1960 and currently does not have official relations with Somaliland. However, this has not stopped the Chinese government from pressuring Somaliland to disengage from Taiwan. According to Somaliland’s media reports, the Chinese Ambassador to Somalia Qin Jian (覃儉) visited Somaliland twice this year to try to persuade Hargeisa to cease its activities with Taiwan. Qin offered to set up a Chinese liaison office in Somaliland if all activities with Taiwan ended, but Somaliland’s president reportedly rejected his request. Following the August meeting between the Chinese Ambassador and Somaliland’s president, Hargeisa issued a statement that it would seek to cooperate with China on economic, trade, and development issues. Nonetheless, Somaliland has generally resisted Chinese pressure over Taiwan thus far.
It is quite unlikely that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will establish official relations with Somaliland in the near future. Doing so would result in sovereignty disputes with Somalia, not to mention creating a problematic precedent of recognizing “breakaway” territories. Indeed, the PRC’s own desire for national unification would likely serve as another compelling reason not to recognize Somaliland’s split from Somalia. Furthermore, China is unlikely to recognize a territory when much of the world has not done so either. As Hargeisa continues its campaign to join the United Nations, Beijing could use its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to block Somaliland from joining the international body, and could possibly utilize this tactic to convince Hargeisa to scale back its interactions with Taipei.
In recent years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as an important player in the geopolitics and security dynamics in the Horn of Africa. The UAE, which is increasing its political and military influence and investing in a free trade area at Somaliland’s Port of Berbera, may become an important link in the development of relations between Somaliland and Taiwan. In fact, the former Somaliland Ambassador to the UAE has praised the territory’s growing relations with Taipei, touting Taiwan’s “success story” and its healthcare assistance to Somaliland. Taiwan and the UAE have enjoyed a distinctively long history of close ties. Compared to the majority of Middle Eastern countries, which have prioritized relations with China, the UAE is seen as the most Taiwan-friendly regional country as I’ve covered in a previous Global Taiwan Brief. From a practical standpoint, to cut down on travel time, Taiwanese visitors to Somaliland could also take a direct Emirates flight from Taipei to Dubai before flying from Dubai to Hargeisa.
As the UAE deepens its foothold in Somaliland, it may exert increased influence over Somaliland’s government and foreign policy, and thus could impact the trajectory of its relations with Taiwan. For its part, Taipei should expand its already friendly ties with the UAE and explore areas for bilateral cooperation as well as trilateral cooperation with Somaliland, such as on regional peace, security, and development issues. At the same time, given heightened security tensions between the United States and China in neighboring Djibouti, where both countries have military bases, Taipei could also work with Washington to promote regional stability and counter rising Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa. As Djibouti is faced with outstanding debts to China that reportedly account for 71 percent of its GDP, the PRC could potentially exert a great deal of financial leverage in the region, providing a strong incentive for countermeasures from the United States and Taiwan to provide an alternative model for infrastructure financing.
To further deepen ties, as first steps Taipei should also consider enhancing its economic footprint in Somaliland, which could emerge as an economic competitor to Djibouti. Currently, Taiwan and Somaliland’s economic and trade relations are underdeveloped. In fact, Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade in the Ministry of Economic Affairs does not even list any trade data for Somaliland. However, the East African territory has raw materials including rich uranium and titanium deposits that could be used for nuclear energy, as well as gem and gold mines. Somaliland’s representative in Taiwan Mohamed Omar Hagi Mohamoud has encouraged foreign investment in mining and oil and gas exploration. Taiwanese firms could also explore opportunities in the development of the Port of Berbera, which is expected to become the largest port in the Horn of Africa after its completion. In sum, Taiwan’s expanding relations with Somaliland could bring mutual benefits in terms of greater international recognition for both places, new avenues for collaboration with regional countries, and a new partnership that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has said will help to advance “peace, freedom, and prosperity in the Horn of Africa.”
The main point: In a breakthrough for Taiwan and Somaliland, both sides established representative offices in each other’s capitals. Both territories share similar values and interests while facing similar challenges in gaining international recognition.
I-wei Jennifer Chang is a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.
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- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- Somaliland Declaration On The Origin Of African Borders
- KOIGI: Acknowledge Somaliland To Cure Festering Wound On Africa
- Somaliland Is A Beacon Of Democracy In An Unstable Region