China-Taiwan Competition Over Somaliland And Implications For Small Countries – Analysis

Foreign Policy Research Institute
Date:  September 1, 2020
By: Thomas J. Shattuck

Somaliland Foreign Minister Hagi Mohamoud with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo Credit: VOA, Wikipedia Commons

(FPRI) — Over the past two months, the very public rivalry between China and Taiwan has moved into the Horn of Africa over representation in unrecognized Somaliland. On July 1, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had signed a deal with Somaliland to establish reciprocal representative offices to foster greater cooperation in “agriculture, education, energy, fisheries, health, information and communications, and mining.” The opening of offices and the exchange of diplomatic staff were delayed by COVID-19 restrictions—with the Somaliland office in Taipei scheduled to be opened in September 2020—even though talks between the two sides had been going on for months prior to the July announcement.

On August 17, the “Taiwan Representative Office” opened in Hargeisa. President Tsai Ing-wen recorded a video to mark the occasion; the opening ceremony was attended by Somaliland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Yasin Hagi Mohamoud. This office is the only one of Taiwan’s that uses “Taiwan” in the official office name, instead of Taipei (generally for offices in countries that it does not have formal relations) or Republic of China (generally for offices in countries that it maintains formal diplomatic relations with). For outside observers, the use of “Taiwan” in a diplomatic office might not seem like that big of a deal, but considering that it is the only instance that the country’s unofficial, but widely used, name appears, it should be viewed as a win—especially since in international fora Taiwan is often forced to use “Chinese Taipei” to have a chance at a seat.

Forming unofficial—and potentially official ties—with Somaliland offers Taiwan a chance to showcase what it has to offer to other countries, particularly smaller, marginalized states. It will also open up new opportunities regionally that may not have existed and shows that Taiwan will not sit idly by as Beijing seeks to further isolate it.

On the face of it, this budding relationship between two unrecognized states shouldn’t be big news. While Taiwan regularly punches above its weight in a variety of areas (most recently COVID-19), Somaliland does not yet have the “unofficial legitimacy” of Taiwan, in which larger countries regularly cooperate and support it despite not having official diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, events that occurred between the July 1 announcement and the August 17 ceremony are instructive in at least one important way: how Beijing tried to stop it.

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