The tiny almost state that is Somaliland has yet again put its neighbours, and pretty much everybody else, to shame. With a history of achieving against the odds, this beacon of near democracy in the Horn of Africa has just decided to snub China. And do so in a very public fashion.
In some ways this is hardly surprising. China has for a while now been supporting the rump state of Somalia and its so called “territorial integrity” – which is diplomatic sub speak for a re-annexation of Somaliland. Given that the smaller, former protectorate of British Somaliland has been a beacon of near peace and stability since it declared its independence from the maniacal regime of Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has never recovered, though is slowly limping out of decades of internecine and Islamist strife and murder. Whereas, Somaliland has taken a different track, forging ahead with an independent, African form of democracy that has, by and large, kept its citizenry safe.
The rejection of Chinese overtures by the Government of Somaliland is as brave as it is unusual. For decades Sino influence in Africa, particularly East Africa has been almost untrammeled. In the last 15 years upwards of £400bn has been invested directly by the government of President Xi, and many, many more billions by state owned or para independent firms. Yet here is this country, of 3.5 million turning round to the behemoth and simply saying ‘No’. Not just once but twice it is reported.
This extraordinary moment took place a few days ago during a visit to the country’s capital, Hargeisa in the last week of Qin Jian, by China’s Ambassador to Somalia and a high-ranking delegation from the foreign ministry in Peking.
The diplomats had arrived after a hastily organised trip, triggered by the strengthening relations between President Muse Bihi Abdi and Taiwan. Somalia, recipient of increasing investment from China, has recently affirmed its support for China’s territorial claims over Taiwan. Chinese interests have lasted since 2007 when CNOOC, a state-owned Chinese oil producer, has been involved in the northern province of Puntland, the region closest to the Somaliland border.
Thus, to see little Somaliland making formal overtures to Taipei, overtures that resulted in Taipei and Hargeisa establishing bilateral ties on July 1st, 2020 has enraged China. Ambassador Jian tweeted two days later, “Taiwan is China’s inherent territory. China exercised effective jurisdiction over Taiwan since the China’s Ming and Qing governments hundreds of years ago. Every inch of China’s territory can’t be discarded. If (sic) is not China’s territory, China doesn’t want an inch.”
A couple of days later, the Foreign Ministry followed up, “The Somali government has reaffirmed its commitment to the One-China Principle and condemned Taiwan’s act that has undermined Somali’s sovereignty & territorial integrity. We appreciate that. The Democratic Progressive Party’s separatist activities will never succeed.” They have secured the formal support of the government in Mogadishu.
But this hasn’t swayed the Somalilanders. President Abdi first had a brief meeting, cut short after Chinese demands on cutting ties with Taiwan, and followed on Friday with another with a delegation from FOCAC, the Chinese Africa Forum. The Chinese arrived with blandishments of the normal kind. Massive investment in the port of Berbera, the airport in Hargeisa. But alongside those carrots comes the inevitable stick.
Currently China has a naval base in Djibouti, a country whose debt obligations to the dragon are overwhelming. In late July, China and Somalia announced they would be conducting joint naval patrols in what they describe as ‘Somalian territorial waters’ on the Red Sea littoral – or in other words Somaliland waters. The carrot; let us build your port (and put you on massive” debt to us). The stick; we will throttle your waters and ability to trade independently. Again, President Abdi turned the Chinese away empty handed, except for positive words about, “agreed to strengthen mutual respect to each other”.
The President must be hoping that the USA’s commitment to Taiwan stretches to those who follow up the Taipei Act, or the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative which since March of this year commits the US to support those who support and recognise Taiwan.
China’s increased belligerence around the world, be it in the mountain fastnesses of the Himalayas where a low level shooting war is being conducted against India, in the China Sea and around Taiwan itself, to its ‘string of pearls’ initiative, of which the Somali naval patrols are part, where it plans to take physical control of the Indian Ocean is seeing diplomatic kick back. The UK has suspended its extradition Treaty with Hong Kong and is ripping up the expected 5G deal with Huawei. Australia’s ongoing economic symbiosis has not stopped it putting on diplomatic pressure and New Zealand and Canada are baring their teeth. India is going through its military and diplomatic gears. Even the EU is beginning to get cold feet over its enthusiasm for cheap Chinese money.
But Somaliland, a land of herdsmen, and a million poets, nobody has yet so directly turned their backs.