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Unlikely Allies? Evaluating Taiwan-Somaliland Relations

Author: Juliet Paulson

On July 1, 2020, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Taiwan and Somaliland, an autonomous region of the country recognized internationally as Somalia, arrived at a decision on the establishment of representative offices in each other’s capital. The decision was not made out of the blue. In fact, it was the outcome of at least a decade of negotiations. In 2009, the two governments initiated collaboration within the arenas of healthcare, education, and maritime security, and began to discuss opportunities to increase cooperation in February of 2020, waiting until summer to share the details publicly due to the pandemic. Though they have yet to establish formal diplomatic ties, both sides are optimistic about the relationship’s future potential. In a press conference, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, highlighted the Taiwan-Somaliland collaboration efforts ongoing since 2009, as well as mutually beneficial arenas for future partnership, such as fisheries, energy, and ICT. Meanwhile, Somaliland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised the “bridges of diplomacy” between both nations based on issues of mutual concern.

Nearly a year later, the relations are seeing an upward trajectory. A number of agreements have been inked to foster cooperation in the field of agriculture, maternal health, and sharing needed medical equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, it is worthwhile to reflect on the development and reasoning behind closer Taiwan-Somaliland ties, and the future implications of this relationship. In addition, delving into the political background and unique characteristics that bind both states together, as well as those that distinguish them from one another, reveals the ways in which the relationship is linked to larger issues of autonomy, identity, and development.

Laying the Groundwork for Relations: Contextualizing Taiwan and Somaliland’s Political Landscapes

Somaliland first declared independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime. Located near the Gulf of Aden in the northwest of the larger Somalia region, Somaliland’s citizens suffered large-scale, systematic persecution under Barre’s government, which sparked a heated national movement (the Somali National Movement, or SNM) that fueled its legitimacy by allying itself with local clan elders and norms. From this alliance, a series of conferences aimed at brokering peace and negotiating the political settlement of the new state emerged. Spanning the better part of the 1990s, these conferences were grounded in traditional mediation practices and institutions, and established the framework for melding the local clan system with the structures of democratic governance going forward.

Crucially, this process was locally directed from the very beginning. Where extensive international patronage has largely resulted in ongoing conflict in the broader region of Somalia, a lack of formal recognition and diplomatic contacts abroad has limited Somaliland’s access to external aid, a stumbling block to local development that has nonetheless circumvented the type of political competition for resources seen in the south. More importantly, during the formative years of Somaliland’s state building process, heightened international focus on Somalia’s political development meant that the overlooked northwest had the time and space it needed to establish localized institutions and solutions that were contextually appropriate, rather than being pressured to accept model frameworks ill-suited to the practical needs of real communities. As is outlined in a 2013 paper by the Developmental Leadership Program, local ownership over the generation of Somaliland’s political norms was key in balancing the demands of peace with the desire for democratic governance.

Yet while Somaliland’s locally-directed state building process has proved vital in the maintenance of peace and stability, it has also created complications for future democratic development. Though ostensibly a functioning multiparty democracy since 2002, Somaliland has struggled in recent years with term extensions and election delays, the influence of the clan system on politics, and the political marginalization of women, youths, and minority groups.

This year, parliamentary and local council elections scheduled for May 31st were held for the first time since 2005 and 2012, respectively. In both elections, Somaliland’s two opposition parties, the Somaliland National Party (WADDANI) and the Justice and Welfare Party (UCID), won the most seats, and announced an alliance in order to jointly appoint the speaker of the nation’s parliament. According to observers from an election monitoring mission by the Brenthurst Foundation, “The conduct of the election illustrates overall the existence of an effective state governed by its own unique form of social contract.” Other international responses include a statement signed by the UK, EU, and eleven other European governments congratulating Somaliland on the election of minority groups and youth candidates, while drawing attention to the decrease in political representation of women as an area meriting further attention. Meanwhile, Minister Wu also put out a statement in support of the elections, taking the opportunity to reaffirm Taiwan’s commitment to enhancing collaboration with Somaliland. While the extent to which these elections will prove significant for Somaliland’s future governing framework—and for Taiwan-Somaliland relations—remains to be seen, the new political landscape could prove influential in reshaping Somaliland’s international engagements going forward.

This context surrounding Somaliland’s unique political development and institutional structures is important to take into account when assessing the potential for Taiwan-Somaliland relations. Both parties enter into the relationship with key features in common, including a lack of widespread external recognition despite functioning with relatively high levels of internal autonomy, along with homegrown democratic apparatuses that were recently developed but have deeper historical roots. For instance, even during the period of martial law, local elections in Taiwan (though inevitably carried by candidates belonging to the ruling party) allowed public sentiment to shift towards greater participation in the political process. In the case of Somaliland, traces of democratic decision-making that predate state formation include elections to choose leadership within the SNM.

Moreover, both nations can be tied together against the backdrop of the broader Indo-Pacific construct. Though the implications and geographic extent of this term vary considerably, the Horn of Africa has been included under this framework before, even if this region is not often at the forefront of conversations on the Indo-Pacific. For example, a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute notes that the increasing prominence of the Indo-Pacific as a security space is reshaping international engagements with the Horn of Africa and the regions surrounding the Gulf of Aden in particular. From this perspective, Taiwan-Somaliland relations can be evaluated within the context of larger shifts in regional economic, diplomatic, and security trends.

At the same time, unlike Taiwan, Somaliland shares its territorial disputes with a neighbor that, rather than being a global economic and political powerhouse, is internationally recognized as a failed state. Additionally, Taiwan and Somaliland occupy vastly different places in the geopolitical landscape: Taiwan’s informal diplomatic presence has a farther reach, and its democratic system is more consolidated. This system was forged under decades of authoritarian rule and a period of martial law which lasted on some islands until the early 1990s. Throughout this period, gradual reforms and grassroots activism gave rise to today’s flourishing multiparty system, and despite the structural and external pressures still present in Taiwan’s political atmosphere, the archipelago has garnered international praise for its role as a democratic stronghold in Asia.

Notably, Somaliland also positions itself as a “shining democratic beacon” in an otherwise unstable region, emphasizing its political successes in contrast to the rest of the Horn of Africa. The democratic values both sides purport to share have been repeatedly highlighted as the foundation for bilateral relations, including in Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen’s speech to mark the opening of the Taiwan Representative Office in Somaliland last August, and in an earlier tweet by Somaliland’s President Muse Bihi Abdi.

The focus on mutual values demonstrates a conscious framing of Taiwan and Somaliland’s relationship and national identities. This framing can be situated within the larger context of both states’ pursuit of sovereignty and legitimacy, both external and internal. From this angle, framing relations through the lens of shared democratic values lays the foundation both for broader international support and for continued tensions with China and Somalia.

International Responses to the Relationship

Predictably, last year’s move to establish mutual representative offices created friction with China and Somalia, who vehemently dispute Taiwan and Somaliland’s claims to autonomy, pointing to some of the risks that lie ahead as the latter two entities attempt to deepen their collaboration. In a statement released last August, Zhao Lijian (趙立堅), spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denounced this development as a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) attempt to sow division and violate Somalia’s territorial integrity, warning that Taiwan would encounter international resistance while also reiterating that any countries seeking to go against the “One-China principle” would suffer serious repercussions. A mainland news article took a similar tone, referring to the establishment of representative offices as a “farce” and focusing exclusively on voices opposed to the maneuver. For its part, Somalia has also criticized the developing Taiwan-Somaliland relationship, accusing Taiwan of inviting discord and infringing on its sovereignty, earning praise from China’s MFA.

The dissatisfaction over Taiwan strengthening relations with a new ally was not merely rhetorical. After the July announcement, Qin Jian (覃俭), Chinese Ambassador to Somalia, arrived in Somaliland, followed shortly by an entire delegation, and reportedly offered a development package to President Bihi on the condition that he cut ties with Taiwan. Local news sources report that Bihi rejected the package and instead emphasized his willingness to increase Taiwan-Somaliland cooperation, asking advisers to examine whether the nation can take advantage of the TAIPEI Act, a law implemented in 2020 which provides for increased U.S. engagement with countries that maintain strong ties to Taiwan. This action demonstrates how a discursive focus on shared democratic values functions not only to unite Taiwan and Somaliland beneath the same ideological banner, but also becomes a means of courting other powerful political actors on the global stage.

Along these lines, Russel Hsiao (蕭良其) pointed out in the Global Taiwan Institute’s fortnightly review that stronger relations between Taiwan and Somaliland could provide an opening for closer ties between Somaliland and the U.S., as well as strategic U.S.-Taiwan cooperation in the Horn of Africa region. Indeed, in the wake of the July 1st announcement, the U.S. National Security Council praised Taiwan as “a great partner in health, education, technical assistance, and more” in a tweet. Experts on the region have been more cautious, though still optimistic regarding this latest shift in Taiwan’s foreign policy. Thomas J. Shattuck from the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) wrote that “a developing bilateral relationship likely will not amount to much economically or militarily,” but could still signal “a change in tempo for Taiwan’s diplomatic fortunes.”

Overall, most observers seem to agree that the implications of the bilateral relationship are meaningful, but not wide-reaching—despite the aggressive posture adopted by Chinese officials and the press, even mainland analysts have downplayed the significance of these ties. However, Taiwan’s growing relationship with Somaliland has allowed the island’s foreign policy to turn over a new leaf, and beyond the small-scale cooperation efforts between both sides, this relationship also offers insights into potential new engagement strategies between countries that are often overlooked or unrecognized in the international community.

Egalitarian Engagement and Implications for Taiwan-Somaliland Relations

Although the above responses indicate that closer ties between Taiwan and Somaliland may not be groundbreaking, there is ample room for mutually beneficial cooperation on both sides. For Somaliland, technical assistance as well as key lessons from the “Taiwan Miracle” can be adjusted to suit local needs and spur economic development. On the other hand, Taiwan can benefit from Somaliland’s untapped natural resources and strategic location on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, a key shipping lane within the global maritime trade network. Furthermore, as a state that occupies a similar diplomatic position to Somaliland, Taiwan can provide guidance as Somaliland seeks to strengthen its democracy and increase its global connections, while Somaliland offers Taiwan a new foothold in East Africa.

A number of small-scale but considerable collaborations are already underway between both nations. For instance, last December witnessed the opening of the Taiwan Technical Mission in Somaliland, based around cooperation in agriculture, healthcare, and information technology. Both governments have also signed an agreement on information and communications technology, under which Taiwan will aid in Somaliland’s digitization efforts through a three-year initiative that aims to enhance the government’s technological effectiveness and provide training to local workers. This emphasis on local talent development is particularly crucial, and should feature in any future Taiwan-Somaliland engagements.

The importance of developing local opportunities is showcased in a 2010 study carried out by the Somaliland National Youth Organization (SONYO), which puts the region’s youth unemployment rate at a staggering 75%. Reliable figures from more recent years have been difficult to come by, though a 2020 paper by the Institute for Strategic Insights and Research, a Hargeisa-based think tank, lowers this rate to 65%. The paper maintains that skills mismatch remains a persistent barrier to employment, while the continued economic alienation of Somaliland’s youth is in turn a catalyst for myriad social issues, a viewpoint shared by other local analysts. In the future, Taiwan could address this problem by prioritizing training programs for youths in relevant, market-driven sectors.

Beyond the pragmatic aspects of cooperation, external observers have also focused on the symbolic implications of Taiwan’s relationship with Somaliland. These ties, though unofficial, mark the end of a streak of diplomatic frustrations abroad for Taiwan, as Beijing has pursued a campaign to isolate the nation from its few remaining formal allies ever since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in 2016. In addition, as is discussed in a 2020 FPRI article, the new relationship demonstrates how the political promise of mutual understanding and respect among small and unrecognized states shapes their diplomatic engagements.

As unrecognized and occasionally overlooked actors on the international stage, Taiwan and Somaliland bring to their relationship unique perspectives and experiences that larger states are unable to provide. Taiwan can model a version of democratic as well as economic growth, and share lessons from its many years of informally navigating the realm of international diplomacy. To some extent, cooperation based on democracy promotion and experience sharing may already be in progress, as evidenced by Taiwan’s support of Somaliland’s elections last May.

At the same time, as with any relationship between states that aims to ground itself in mutual respect and shared values, this goal can only be achieved by enhancing reciprocal understanding of the extent to which models are transferable between certain contexts. In Somalia, successive governing regimes propped up by foreign money and imported political frameworks have been unable to rebuild a shattered state, whereas in Somaliland, the localized approach to state building has led to a relatively stable, representative system of governance, yet has also served as a barrier to more inclusive politics. In this sense, Taiwan’s unique status in the geopolitical landscape may prove advantageous. Instead of entering Somaliland’s complex political atmosphere as a high-status international actor bent on imposing its own version of order, Taiwan is an ally that shares similar struggles with Somaliland, while still being in a position to provide technical assistance and aid in institutional capacity building. To some degree, therefore, the relationship between Taiwan and Somaliland has the potential to model a more egalitarian platform for bilateral cooperation at the small scale.

For this reason, Taiwan-Somaliland relations holds significance that goes beyond the increased collaboration of two small, unrecognized states. The stakes of engagement are deceptively small, but in fact closely related to core issues of how such nations define themselves and seek leverage on the global stage. In the process of strengthening bilateral ties, Taiwan and Somaliland also have the opportunity to strengthen their self-identification, and reevaluate how best to do justice to the image of autonomous democratic bastions they promote to the world and present as the foundation for mutual relations. This, in turn, provides a chance to lend further credibility to calls that both states be allowed to renegotiate their role in the international community on their own terms.

In an era of increasing democratic backsliding across the globe, Taiwan and Somaliland stand as testaments to the notion that democratic modes of governance can take root and blossom even in repressive circumstances, through processes that are locally devised, popularly supported, and tailored to particular regional contexts. Indeed, this similarity between both nations often structures the narrative on how they each relate to one another and the broader global community. However, if Taiwan wishes to engage with Somaliland as a like-minded democratic nation and provide a model for future political development, going beyond this rhetoric to grasp on-the-ground needs and understand the concrete barriers that continue to stymie the expansion of representative government in the area is crucial. Ultimately, highlighting shared features to bring Taiwan and Somaliland closer while simultaneously accounting for each side’s unique political context can lay the groundwork for a relationship that, while small-scale, has the potential to provide mutual benefits and an alternative paradigm for interaction among often overlooked members of the international community.

Juliet Paulson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she majored in History, Anthropology, and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, with a focus on Chinese. She served as a Research Intern with the Taiwan NextGen Foundation in Spring 2021 through the Chinese Language Flagship Program.


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