Somaliland and Taiwan: moving closer together

While experts have been largely focusing on China’s presence in Africa, the moves of its neighbour, Taiwan, in the African continent haven’t received adequate attention. However, the foreign policy of Taiwan in Africa merits consideration, also because it is totally different from the Chinese one. Taipei pursues a “dollar diplomacy” with its diplomatic allies. It refers to delivering infrastructure development projects and aid in several sectors, in exchange for providing diplomatic support and defending Taiwan’s interests in the international organizations from which it is excluded.


In order to renew its diplomatic presence in the continent, in February 2020, Taiwan signed a major strategic agreement with Somaliland to set up reciprocal representation offices, but it was not made public until July 2020. The goal of the agreement is fostering cooperation on shared issues, and strengthening political, social, and economic ties between the two countries, with a focus on agriculture, education, energy, fisheries, health, information and communication, and mining.


China and Somalia condemned the move, in their enduring effort to prevent the two countries from seceding, though Washington welcomed it. Shortly after, Beijing tried to dissuade Somaliland: on August 7, 2020, a top diplomatic delegation led by China’s Special Representative for the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC) met with H.E Muse Bihi, president of the Republic of Somaliland. Concerned over the relationship between Hargeisa and Taipei, China offered to Somaliland hard infrastructural projects—ports, airports and industrial parks—in exchange for Somaliland to cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The offer was declined.


Taiwan and Somaliland share similar geopolitical circumstances, which render the relations natural and unique. Both are largely unrecognized by the international community, despite hosting and having representative offices in several countries: Taiwan is unofficially represented in 15 countries, while Somaliland has representative offices in 22 countries around the world. Both have experienced decades-long diplomatic aggression from larger neighbouring countries (Somalia and China respectively). Yet both, through their determination and resilience have conquered freedom, democracy, peace, and prosperity. To mention, Somaliland has a working political system, government institutions, a police force and its own currency. Most importantly, the former British protectorate has avoided much of the chaos and violence that afflict Somalia.


Although Somaliland is not internationally recognized, what this country can offer is impressive. Somaliland’s location is extremely strategic: it faces the Gulf of Aden, through which transits 10 percent of global maritime trade (worth $750 billion) and around 30 percent of Europe's oil. The Port of Berbera, but also Somaliland’s rich mineral resources, including untapped oil and gas potential, represent real opportunities for Taiwan. Without doubts, investment by Taiwanese companies and entrepreneurs could be truly profitable. By strengthening its relations with Somaliland, Taipei can secure a presence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Apparently, Somaliland represents the gateway into East Africa for Taiwan and an opportunity to challenge China’s influence there.

On the other side, Somaliland may learn from the “Taiwan Economic Miracle”, which focuses both on domestic growth and strong regional integration. Yet, Taiwan can offer what Hargeisa is really looking for: mutual respect.


In addition, this agreement arrived in a difficult period for Somaliland-China relations, because of Chinese activities in the Gulf of Aden. Illegal fishing in the Gulf had already damaged Somaliland’s marine ecosystems and fisheries, after the Somalia government conceded 31 fishing licenses to Beijing in late 2018, without consulting the Somaliland government, which patrols the waters of the Gulf. Worried by the Chinese incursion, Somaliland may look for Taiwan’s assistance to establish a navy able to protect its territorial waters.


As for now, China and Somalia haven’t made any concrete moves. Months ago, experts assessed possible risks and, accordingly, China could have been a real threat for Somaliland. Among the risks, it has been thought that Beijing could have blocked any attempt by Somaliland to achieve international recognition and could have prevented Chinese products from reaching the territory. There were also fears that China may have supported and armed the central government in Mogadishu to gain qualitative superiority over Somaliland. Surely, diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Somaliland have marked a watershed. If the “Taiwan Economic Miracle” proves adaptable to Somaliland, other African countries may think about setting up relations with Taipei, moving slightly away from Beijing. African countries should make diplomatic decisions based on economic calculations. It’s well known that China is an unforgiving creditor. No debt forgiveness to African countries has been provided so far.