Neither Taiwan Nor China Can Change Somaliland’s Outcast Position In Africa

By Amodani Gariba

Somaliland president receives Chinese ambassador
Credit: Somaliland Standard

Prior to the competition between China and Taiwan over the east African breakaway nation of Somaliland, the country was virtually unheard of. If this is your first time reading anything about Somaliland, this should hint to you on how secluded the country is in the international space. The news headlines that emerged following recent China and Taiwan’s diplomatic scuffle over the country helped to create awareness of the country’s existence.

Somaliland’s relation to Taiwan dates back to 2009. In 2020, however, the two breakaway countries decided to sign an agreement that saw Taiwan establish a representative office in Somaliland and Somaliland in Taipei. This development infuriated China, for which reason Beijing sent its Somalia’s ambassador to Hargeisa – the capital of Somaliland, to hold talks with Muse Bihi Abdi, President of Somaliland. Despite China’s promise of aid to the poor country, the talks fell short of persuading president Abdi to discontinue his ties with Taiwan. 

In retrospect to the country’s decades-old dream for international recognition, this article discusses how Somaliland’s choice between Taiwan and China only adds little to the realization of its lifetime dreams. To choose Taiwan over China is to prefer rock to a hard place.

How is Somaliland geopolitically important?

One may wonder, what at all does this poor, tiny, and obscure country, situated on the horn of Africa, has to offer that is making China and Taiwan split hairs over? One may easily misinterpret the country’s relative obscurity as a lack of potential. On the contrary, the country is laden with both economic and geopolitical opportunities, despite its international isolation. The USA, which welcomed the bilateral relation between the country and Taiwan, seems to be using Taipei as a proxy in this tussle.

The country’s situation on the coast of the Gulf of Aden puts Somaliland in close proximity to the strait of Bab Al-Mandeb.  The country has a strategic geopolitical significance by virtue of its geography. In 2018, 6.2 million barrels of crude oil passed through BabAl-Mandeb to Europe, USA, and Asia, which accounted for 9% of the total global seaborne trade.  This makes the strait one of the most important chokepoints in the world. To ensure the security of oil tankers crossing the strait, USA, France, China, and others have set up military bases in countries in the horn region. Djibouti, Somaliland’s western neighbor, has the highest concentration of foreign military bases in Africa for this particular reason.  The prospect of establishing a military base in Somaliland is enough to entice global powers to the country. 

Aside from its geopolitical significance, Somaliland has huge crude oil potential, both onshore and offshore. Despite China’s strategy of diversifying its oil sources, Africa remains an important source. The same is true for other huge importers of oil. Therefore, the first to get a diplomatic foothold in Somaliland is likely to get a lead in the country’s oil industry.  

So why does no country want to recognize Somaliland

Let us refer to a bit of history here. Somaliland is a former British colony, which Joined the Italian controlled south in 1960 to form the Republic of Somalia. Things turned sour soon after independence. People from the North – now Somaliland, who are mostly from the Isaaq clan, felt marginalized and disenfranchised. Resistance soon emerged. However, Siad Barre, the military leader then, responded with a brutal crackdown on dissent.  An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 perished, with several hundreds of thousands displaced. Siad Barre’s government after 22 years collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Somaliland, led by the Somali National Movement announced its secession from Somalia in 1991. Ever since, the enclave has been stable with a democratic government, while the rest of the region continued with violence and chaos.

Despite the prevalence of peace in the country, the international community has yet to recognize it. UN still regards the breakaway country as part of Somalia. The international community frowns upon an attempt by other countries to grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland. The UN has hardly been successful in rectifying the dysfunctional state of Somalia since the fall of Barre. The international community perceives Somaliland to be a distraction, especially at a time the world is trying to clean up the mess that Somalia has come to be. 

The African Union is not enthused about Somaliland’s quest for recognition. For Africa, a negative precedent could be set, should Somaliland gain international recognition. It could serve as a motivation for the multitude of secessionist groups, threatening the stability of several African countries. 

With China or Taiwan, Somaliland would still be a lone ranger

Somaliland chose Taiwan over China.  But regardless of whom it picks, the prospect of gaining international recognition is still bleak. Taiwan is a country, which, despite its extensive cooperation with several powerful countries, suffers from a lack of international recognition. China’s pursuit of ‘One China policy’ since its admission into the UN, led to Taiwan’s international isolation. Taiwan, which had recognition in many African countries, has lost them all but one – eSwatini. Trying to gain international recognition by aligning with Taiwan is mission impossible. Taiwan, which was expelled from the UN following China’s admission, lacks the geopolitical influence to persuade countries to side with it. Taiwan does not have any string to pull for Somaliland’s admission into the international community. It is yet to get there itself. 

China has an enormous geopolitical influence that could help Somaliland. However, the question, which begs for an answer, is whether China would be willing to do so. Even if Somaliland had ditched Taiwan for China, it would not get the recognition it dreams of. This is the case for two reasons. First, given China’s stature in the international community, it would be a mark of irresponsibility for Beijing to push Somaliland’s admission. China would not like to be seen in a light that casts it undermining the efforts of the international community in Somalia. Secondly, China would not risk antagonizing its African friends, on whose support it relies on for dominance in multilateral bodies. Somaliland is just too small of a cause for China to sacrifice its ‘honor’, ‘dignity’ and old friends for.  

Somaliland’s cozy relationship with Taiwan is nothing more of an expression of solidarity between two unrecognized countries. Somaliland could use its strategic location to grab economic investments, but when it comes to its dream of recognition, it is still a lone ranger.

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