Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 13 April 2021


Somaliland and Taiwan: Two territories with few friends but each other

Mohamed Hagi (R), Somaliland's Taiwan representative, bumps elbows while posing with Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu during the opening ceremony of the Somaliland representative office in Taipei on September 9, 2020
image caption Somaliland's mission in Taiwan opened in September last year

Both Taiwan and Somaliland are basically fully functioning territories which proudly declare their independence but neither is recognised internationally and now, as Mary Harper reports, they are moving closer together.

"Welcome to our humble office," says Chou Shuo-Wei Amir, the Third Secretary at Taiwan's diplomatic mission in Somaliland.

In fact, "humble" is misplaced as the mission is rather swish, located in a large villa next to the ministry of religious affairs in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa.

A Taiwanese flag flutters gently in the warm breeze - its red, white and blue colours striking against the clear blue sky.

Although some see their relationship as bizarre, Somaliland and Taiwan are in many ways natural bedfellows.

Angering China and Somalia

Both are unrecognised internationally and both have larger neighbours - Somalia and China - which insist they are part of their territories.

Somaliland and Taiwan established diplomatic relations last year to the fury of those neighbours.

Somalia denounced Taiwan for becoming friends with Somaliland. Chinese officials travelled to Somaliland and insisted it sever ties with Taiwan.

It is possible that China sees Taiwan's relationship with Somaliland as a potential disruptor of its Belt and Road Initiative, whereby it plans to develop sea and land trade routes across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

An obstructive Somaliland, with its highly strategic Berbera port, could block the continuity of its Maritime Silk Road along the eastern coast of Africa.

Allen Chenhwa Lou
Somaliland is Taiwan's gateway to East Africa, from here I represent Taiwan in 10 East African countries"
Allen Chenhwa Lou
Taiwan's representative in Somaliland
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China might also be eyeing the Somaliland-Taiwan friendship a little nervously because it has established its first overseas military base anywhere in the world, in neighbouring Djibouti.

Taiwan sees Somaliland as the first step in its ambitions in the region.

"Somaliland is Taiwan's gateway to East Africa," says the Taiwanese representative in Somaliland, Allen Chenhwa Lou, sitting under a picture of his president, Tsai Ing-wen.

"From here I represent Taiwan in 10 East African countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia."

Somaliland is one of just two African territories to have full diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The first was the tiny nation of Eswatini, which forged ties way back in 1968.

'Somaliland's big brother'

Mr Lou describes the relationship between the two territories as "win-win". Taiwan offers assistance in agriculture, technology, education, healthcare, elections and energy. Somaliland has a strategic location, rich fishing stocks, natural resources and tourism potential.

"Somaliland calls Taiwan its 'big brother'," says Mr Lou. "But I prefer to see our relationship as a sharing and cooperative one. We will always be together with Somaliland.

"We do not need to seek independence right now because we are already independent. What we both need is recognition. Both of us share this difficult situation."

Presentational grey line

Somaliland and Somalia

A Russian made mig fighter jet that was used in 1989 seen hanging in Hargeisa as a monument of reminder to the people of Somalilan

    But not everyone in Somaliland is impressed with the new-found friendship and wonder whether losing China as an ally is a price worth paying.

    "Two naked people cannot help each other," says livestock trader Ismail Mohamed. "We need the superpower China much more than we need little Taiwan."

    Businesswoman Muna Aden is also sceptical.

    "The relationship with Taiwan shows the madness of Somalilanders," she says.

    "We thought Somaliland made overtures towards Taiwan as a way of trying to attract China by saying: 'If you don't marry us, we will marry the other one'. We never expected them to forge ties.

    "It is a big mistake which China will never forget."

    But the authorities in Somaliland are not budging. Acting Foreign Minister, Liban Yousuf Osman, defends the relationship, saying the two territories have shared values of democracy and freedom.

    "We welcome any country that wants a relationship with Somaliland, including China. But we won't kick out Taiwan because of China."

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