Taiwan has agreed to set up a diplomatic office in the unrecognized, but strategically important, the African state of Somaliland in a possible move towards full diplomatic relations that is likely to enrage China, which has invested heavily in building deep bilateral relationships in Africa.
“This is the first step of diplomatic relations between the two countries and we will move from there,” said Liban Yusuf Osman, Somaliland’s deputy foreign minister. Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991, would soon send a representative to open an office in Taipei, he said.
While Somaliland has diplomatic representation in more than a dozen countries around the world, including the UK, US, and Ethiopia, no country currently recognizes it as an independent state.
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Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, said the two states were building bilateral ties “based on shared values”.
“We look forward to opening representative offices in both countries to expand mutually beneficial co-operation,” she said in a statement on Twitter.
Taiwan is a de facto independent state but is claimed by China as part of its territory.
The Horn of Africa, where Somaliland is located, is one of the most strategically contested parts of the world. The region serves as a political and cultural bridge between Africa and the Middle East and borders the Red Sea — a gateway to the Suez Canal and a vital corridor for maritime trade.
The US, China, Japan, France, and Italy all have military bases in neighboring Djibouti, while Middle Eastern states including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey have established competing port infrastructure along Africa’s Red Sea coast in Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan.
With regards to our special diplomatic relationship we are pleased to sign a diplomatic agreement between our two respective countries. #Somaliland and #Taiwan officially notify to open two Representative Offices in #Hargeisa and #Taipei. pic.twitter.com/fdSzQFv85T
— Yasin Hagi Mohamoud (@HagiMohamoud) July 1, 2020
For Taiwan, diplomatic co-operation with Somaliland is part of a pushback against ever stronger Chinese influence around the world, which has constrained its room for maneuver.
It comes as praise from fellow democracies for Taiwan’s successful containment of coronavirus has failed to translate into tangible diplomatic results. When the EU reopened its borders to tourists from some countries this week, Taiwan was absent from the list, although the country counts as one of the safest in the world in terms of coronavirus risk.
Joseph Wu, the Taiwanese foreign minister, described the co-operation with Somaliland as a continuation of Taiwan’s efforts to work with countries with shared values. “They are a democracy, they have had three successful presidential elections and they have transfers of power,” he said.
Mr. Wu stressed that Taipei and Hargeisa treated each other as sovereign countries, adding that Somaliland’s rich mineral resources could be of interest to Taiwan.
Mr. Osman said the two states would co-operate in several areas, including security, agriculture, education, fisheries, technology and governance.
“Somaliland is in a very strategic location along the Red Sea and there is always a threat of terror and violence,” said the deputy foreign minister. “Taiwan is a very developed country with very developed maritime forces and we are looking forward to co-operating in that sector.”
Only 15 countries recognize Taiwan after several of its allies switched their recognition to Beijing under strong diplomatic pressure from China. In Africa, only the Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, recognizes Taiwan after Burkina Faso re-established relations with Beijing in 2018.
“There are very strong geopolitical considerations at play,” said Murithi Mutiga, an analyst at Crisis Group, of the closer ties between Somaliland and Taiwan. “This just emphasizes that Great Power competition is playing out in the Horn of Africa.”
Mr. Osman said Somaliland understood “the political issue” between China and Taiwan but was not afraid of Beijing’s reaction. “We are dealing with Taiwan as a country but we are willing to deal with China. There is no obstacle,” he said. “If China is willing to open their office, we will welcome them.”