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On July 1, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry issued a press statement announcing that the governments of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Republic of Somaliland had agreed to establish ties. The foreign minister of Taiwan, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), noted that eight countries and global organizations have set up representative offices in Somaliland, while the self-declared East African state has established its own representative offices in 22 countries. The full statement read:

On behalf of the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaushieh Joseph Wu announced in a press conference on July 1 that agreement has been reached with the Republic of Somaliland on the mutual establishment of Representative Offices based on bilateral friendship and a shared commitment to common values of freedom, democracy, justice, and the rule of law. The offices will be named the Taiwan Representative Office and Somaliland Representative Office, respectively. In the spirit of mutual assistance for mutual benefit, Taiwan and Somaliland will engage in cooperation in areas such as fisheries, agriculture, energy, mining, public health, education, and ICT.

At a press conference revealing the agreement, Taiwan’s foreign minister noted that because formal diplomatic ties have not been established, the office in Somaliland will be called the “Taiwan Representative Office.” Additionally, Somaliland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted: “The Government of Somaliland identified issues of mutual concern, including building-bridges of diplomacy; opening missions to boost political and socioeconomic links between the Republic of Somaliland and the Republic of China (Taiwan).”

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Taiwan and Somaliland apparently signed the bilateral agreement on February 26, but waited nearly five months to make the announcement public. In the meantime, Somaliland has reportedly been resisting pressure from Beijing to abort its decision. According to one media report: “The Chinese ambassador to Somalia met twice with Somaliland officials to discourage ties between Somaliland and Taiwan, numerous reports indicated earlier this week, saying China would open a representative office in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa should they break the agreement with Taiwan.”

Since the diplomatic switch to Beijing by Burkina Faso in May 2018, Taiwan has had only one diplomatic partner in the entire African continent. That last remaining diplomatic ally, eSwatini—formerly known as Swaziland—has come under intense pressure and economic coercion by China to switch ties. Earlier this year, the PRC’s then-ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian (林松添), threatened that China would economically “cripple” the small African kingdom and claimed “no diplomatic relations, no more business benefits.” Lin has since left his post as ambassador and has assumed the post of president of the influential United Front outfit, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (中國人民對外友好協會), underscoring the shift in the focus of that organization to the African continent.

In addition to being a rare countervailing diplomatic switch, the move on Somaliland could be seen as part of Taipei’s efforts to expand its strategic footprint globally by developing its relations with the African continent. Somaliland is strategically located in the Horn of Africa in northwestern Somalia. Crucially, it lies on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden—a vital waterway for shipping, especially for Persian Gulf oil. It is bordered by the remainder of (internationally recognized) Somalia to the east, Djibouti to the northwest, and Ethiopia to the south and west.

Breaking away from Somalia in 1991 during the Somali Civil War, the Republic of Somaliland has held democratic elections but does not maintain diplomatic relations with any recognized state in the international community. It is a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), an advocacy group whose members consist of indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognized or occupied territories. Taiwan is also a member of this grouping.

Reactions to the announcement among analysts have been mixed. According to RAND analyst Derek Grossman: “Bad idea. If Taiwan wants to be treated as an internationally-recognized sovereign state, then it needs internationally-recognized sovereign states to recognize it. Lowering the bar to autonomous territories cheapens that brand.” On the other hand, Thomas Shattuck, a research associate with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote: “This announcement—while falling short of formal relations—reverses course for Taiwan. The last time that Taiwan was able to add a friend or ally was in 2007 with St. Lucia. Somaliland and Taiwan share similar geopolitical circumstances, which almost make the new pairing seem natural.”

Beijing’s response was expected: “Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) on Monday accused Taiwanese authorities of “plotting separatist activities” and violating the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Somalia by setting up mutual representative offices with Somaliland.” Striking a very different tone, in a tweet on July 9, the White House National Security Council applauded the decision: “Great to see #Taiwan stepping up its engagement in East #Africa in a time of such tremendous need. #Taiwan is a great partner in health, education, technical assistance, and more!”

While the United States never formally severed diplomatic relations with Somalia, the US Embassy in Somalia was closed in 1991, when the central government collapsed due to the civil war, and it was not until December 2018 that the United States reestablished a permanent diplomatic presence in Somalia.

Given Somaliland’s lack of international diplomatic recognition, the establishment of ties will likely only have marginal diplomatic value for Taiwan. Yet, through this action Taipei is demonstrating that Taiwan can still have some agency in its limited diplomatic space. At the very least, it offers a reprieve—albeit a minor one—from the diplomatic onslaught that Beijing has been waging since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected president of Taiwan in 2016. In response to this intensifying pressure campaign, the US Congress passed and the president signed into law the TAIPEI Act in late March 2020. Among various provisions, the act states as policy to “consider, in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests, increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan.” At most, the move by Taipei in Somaliland could open the door for improved relations between Washington and Somaliland, and may encourage some strategic cooperation between Taiwan and the United States in the strategically located Horn of Africa.

The main point: Taiwan’s announcement that it had established ties with Somaliland will likely only have marginal diplomatic value, but could open the door wider for cooperation with the United States in the Horn of Africa.

The Global Taiwan Institute Brief Volume 5, Issue 14 on July 15, 2020

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