The establishment of the Somaliland-Taiwan partnership is an interesting new frontier in de facto state diplomacy that potentially brings significant benefits to both Somaliland and Taiwan.
By Scott Pegg
On July 1, 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan formally announced a bilateral accord which will see Somaliland open a representative office in Taipei and Taiwan open a representative office in Hargeisa. Interestingly, in its official statement announcing the signing of the “Bilateral Protocol between and by the Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Government of the Republic of Somaliland,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the accord was signed on February 26, 2020 during a visit to Taiwan by Somaliland’s Foreign Minister Yassin Hagi Mohamoud and that Somaliland and Taiwan have been cultivating cordial relations since 2009. That might even be an understatement as I participated in a conference organized by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in 2008 which was partially funded by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and where Somaliland and Taiwan’s respective representatives to the European Union happily participated on the same panels.
Taiwan appointed Lou Chen-hwa (羅震華), a counselor at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Saudi Arabia, to head its representative office in Hargeisa. Somaliland appointed Mohamed Omar Hagi Mohamoud, an academic and advisor to two different government ministries to head its representative office in Taipei. Lou Chen-hwa has been in Hargeisa for several months setting Taiwan’s office up and he recently met with Somaliland’s Minister of Higher Education to discuss bilateral cooperation on higher education. Mohamed Omar Hagi Mohamoud arrived in Taipei on August 7th and hopes to have Somaliland’s office there set up later this month.
It is important to note that this accord does not establish formal diplomatic relations between Hargeisa and Taipei. The respective offices established are to be called the “Taiwan Representative Office” and the “Somaliland Representative Office.” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister noted that the term “Republic of China” was not used because Somaliland and Taiwan had not established formal diplomatic ties. Taiwan currently has formal diplomatic relations with 15 countries that recognize it. In addition to its 15 embassies in those countries, Taiwan maintained 93 representative offices in 2019 in countries that it did not have formal diplomatic relations with. These offices are most typically designated as a Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, but other terms including Taipei Mission, Taipei Trade Office, and Taipei Liaison Office are also used. In 2019, 69 countries maintained embassies, consulates, or missions in Taiwan. Similarly, Somaliland currently 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, the UK, the EU and the UN all have various offices there as well.
One entirely predictable reaction to this agreement was hostility from China and Somalia. The Chinese ambassador to Somalia, Qin Jian, visited Somaliland twice before the accord was announced, reportedly offering to establish a Chinese liaison office in Hargeisa if Somaliland’s government dropped its ties with Taiwan. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) accused Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party administration of acting like “a drowning person clutching at straws,” while praising Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo’s statement denouncing “Taiwan’s violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia” and reaffirming Mogadishu’s respect for the “one China” policy. Closer Chinese-Somalian cooperation seems like an inevitable consequence of the Somaliland-Taiwan deal, but whether that extends to joint naval patrols of Somalia and Somaliland’s coast remains to be seen. Whatever interests they share China will not be immune from the serial problems presented by dysfunctional governance and persistent instability in Mogadishu.
In the face of Chinese opposition, Taiwan quickly reiterated its intention to deepen and further develop its relationship with Somaliland. Somaliland first rebuffed Chinese pressure to end its ties with Taiwan in meetings with Ambassador Qin in July 2020. Subsequently, Somaliland’s President Musa Bihi Abdi refused to meet with Ambassador Qin in August and then again rejected Chinese demands to sever ties with Taiwan in a meeting with Ambassador Qin and three Chinese diplomats from Beijing, who reportedly also offered additional infrastructure spending on top of the previously stated offer to open a Chinese liaison office in Hargeisa. Taiwan has faced such foreign policy pressure from China for decades. Somaliland presumably viewed China’s extensive investments in Djibouti‘s port, its close links with Mogadishu, and its reflexive support for territorial integrity as signifying that it was never going to recognize Somaliland. Somaliland perhaps also thought that its ties with Taiwan could generate “intangible and material benefits that offset the macroeconomic opportunity costs of foregone Chinese investment, aid, and credit.”
Alleged reasons behind this diplomatic manoeuver
Taiwan and Somaliland initially have relatively modest aims. According to Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Taiwan and Somaliland will cooperate in the fields of agriculture, mining, fishing, energy, public health, education, and information technology. Yet, this accord has already started generating wild and exaggerated speculation. Almost inevitably, there is speculation that Taiwan wants to establish a military base in Berbera. Why, exactly, Taiwan would want a military base in Berbera is not at all clear, particularly given China’s increasingly aggressive probing of its own air and sea defenses. Similarly, vivid speculation has centered on the possibility of Somaliland formally recognizing Taiwan. Whether Taiwan would even want this or what it would possibly gain from this is again unclear. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s Tweet welcoming the arrival of Somaliland’s representative which noted that “The fact ‘sovereignty & friendship aren’t for sale’ deserves international recognition” was more likely a clever play on words than an expectation that Somaliland and Taiwan would mutually recognize each other. Perhaps the most intense speculation has centered on an anonymous Tweet from the US National Security Council welcoming the new relationship between Somaliland and Taiwan. Sensibly, former US Ambassador David Shinn quickly derided this Tweet as “a most unusual communication” which “does not necessarily suggest there will be any further U.S. involvement on this matter” while conservative commentator Michael Rubin drily noted that Tweets “are not substantive policy.”
For Somaliland, there are clear benefits to its growing friendship with Taiwan. Most obviously, Somaliland which receives comparatively little foreign assistance will benefit from Taiwanese aid. Among other things, officials from Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund have visited Somaliland and met with its vice president, provided testing equipment and medical supplies to help Somaliland combat the COVID 19 pandemic, sent 300 tons of rice to help alleviate hunger in the wake of crop-destroying locust invasions in Somaliland and provided scholarships to graduate students from Somaliland. Taiwan’s ability to transform Somaliland’s dire lack of a viable health care system by partnering with effective institutions like former Foreign Minister Edna Adan’s hospital is potentially a monumental game-changer with direct benefits for all Somaliland citizens.
Clearly, though, for Somaliland, the biggest hoped-for prize from its embrace of Taiwan has improved relations with the United States. An academic analysis of “WikiLeaks” diplomatic cables clearly demonstrates that Somaliland-US relations have generally been positive. Defensively, President Bihi probably hopes to use his new agreement with Taipei to neutralize the influence of US Ambassador to Somalia Donald Yamamoto who is widely seen as extremely pro-Mogadishu and a driving force behind the impetus to restart Somalia-Somaliland talks in Djibouti. More positively, Bihi is trying to tie into the Trump Administration’s more pro-Taiwan foreign policy orientation. Most specifically, he hopes Somaliland will benefit from the 2019 Taipei Act, one of whose provisions mandates that the United States “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.” One initial step might be encouraging US officials to travel to Hargeisa as has been encouraged for Taipei in the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act.
The benefits for Taiwan clearly extend beyond its citizens receiving visa waivers for travel to Somaliland. Somaliland remains desperate for foreign direct investment and Taiwanese companies might find rich opportunities in its agriculture, consumer goods, fisheries, and oil sectors. Taiwan has been losing diplomatic allies to China for decades, but its loss of influence in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly striking. Over the past 15 years, Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Malawi, São Tomé and Principe, and Senegal have all switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Taiwan is now left with just one diplomatic ally in sub-Saharan Africa, eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), and only maintains trade or liaison offices in two other countries (Nigeria and South Africa). Exchanging representative offices with Somaliland does not solve this much larger problem, but it is a rare spot of bright news for Taiwanese foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Complimentary actions: punching over its diplomatic weight
The establishment of relations with Somaliland is also part of a broader Taiwanese strategy to break out of the isolation China has tried to impose on it. One example of this is the government’s New Southbound Policy which aims to enhance Taiwan’s agricultural, business, cultural, education, tourism, and trade ties with the 10 member states of ASEAN, six South Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.
Most significantly, Taiwan has deftly exploited its widely touted response to the COVID 19 pandemic to bolster international support. Although it received 12 flights a day from Wuhan before the pandemic outbreak, at the time of writing Taiwan had only 481 confirmed cases of COVID 19 and only 7 deaths from it. Taiwan’s adroit handling of the coronavirus pandemic has earned praise from a wide variety of media sources, as well as in prestigious medical journals, from its political allies and, yes, from American singer Barbara Streisand.
Taiwan has exploited this wave of positive publicity to advance its foreign policy goals in two main ways. First, it has used its successful response to COVID 19 to highlight its exclusion as even an observer to the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan has secured public pledges of support for its participation in the WHO from Australia, Canada, Japan, the European Union, and the US. Taiwan also protested WHO terminology implying it was a province of China and succeeded in getting the widely cited Johns Hopkins University database on COVID 19 to refer to it as Taiwan, as opposed to its previous “Taipei and environs, China.”
Second, Taiwan actively began providing medical equipment and assistance to further enhance its profile. Its government and citizens began using #Taiwancanhelp to document its efforts. This campaign took on a specifically sub-Saharan African twist after WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian, accused Taiwan of being behind abusive, racist attacks against him and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan highlighted its medical aid to African countries and to Tedros’ home country of Ethiopia specifically to combat this accusation.
Taiwanese citizens also launched a #ThisAttackComesFromTaiwan campaign on social media where they posted pictures of beaches, food, beautiful natural settings, historic buildings and city scenes to mock the idea that they were behind attacks on Director-General Tedros. Building better with relations with Somaliland is an important part of Taiwan’s campaign to raise its profile and its support across sub-Saharan Africa.
The establishment of representative offices in Hargeisa and Taipei is an interesting new development in de facto state diplomacy that potentially brings significant benefits to both Somaliland and Taiwan. It does not resolve the sundry challenges that either de facto state confronts while (largely or entirely) lacking recognition in a world of sovereign states, but it should prove a fruitful relationship for both parties.
Author: Scott Pegg
Department of Political Science, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), United States
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