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.
In early August, Chinese Ambassador to Somalia Qin Jian met with Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi. According to reports, Qin offered Somaliland a development package on the condition that talks with Taiwan cease. Later in August, another high-level delegation met with President Bihi to discuss similar topics. Beijing’s attempt to sway, or pressure, Somaliland failed. The Chinese officials apparently offered to open a representative office in Hargeisa instead, as well as aid for developing roads and an airport. The way in which Beijing treated President Bihi in these meetings appear to have spurred him to look into the process of formally recognizing Taiwan.
One of China’s primary aims is to keep Taiwan as diplomatically isolated as possible, so the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had worked before the July 1 announcement to stop the Somaliland-Taiwan relationship from developing. That campaign intensified over the past two months and didn’t work out in Beijing’s favor. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on August 18, “China firmly opposes the establishment of official institutions or any form of official exchanges between Taiwan and Somaliland.” And then, on August 19, Zhao made a veiled threat at Somaliland and any country with a relationship with Taiwan: “Those going against the trend to challenge the one-China principle will get burned and swallow the bitter fruit.” It is not entirely clear what Zhao meant by “swallow the bitter fruit,” but Beijing has successfully pressured other countries and private companies into downgrading their relationship/classification of Taiwan in the past, so getting spurned by Somaliland must have been quite a shock.
For its part, the government of Somalia also condemned the establishment of Taiwan’s representative office in Somaliland. The Somali Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a stern statement: “The Federal Government of Somalia condemns Taiwan’s reckless attempts to infringe on the Sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Somalia and violate its Territorial Integrity. . . . The Federal Government of Somalia therefore, calls on Taiwan to cease its misinformed ventures into any part of the territory of the Federal Republic of Somalia. These Principles are non-negotiable to the Federal Government of Somalia.” The statement mirrors ones that China’s MOFA regularly makes on Taiwan: they take a strong and threatening tone that leaves no room for compromise no matter the offense.
The Chinese rush to prevent Somaliland from developing ties with Taiwan demonstrates Beijing’s general approach to smaller countries in a few ways. An often-quoted statement that still sums up how Chinese officials treat other countries’ officials demonstrates Beijing’s approach to Somaliland: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” That was said in 2010 by then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who now serves as Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But that mentality was—and is—not limited to Southeast Asia. In Beijing’s mind, Somaliland isn’t even a “small country,” but a small part of a small country.
This mindset has been further amplified in 2020 with the rise of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” which uses aggressive rhetoric and threats against another country to change behavior. It rose to prominence in the aftermath of the outbreak of COVID-19, with Chinese diplomats making false and exaggerated claims about other countries that expressed discontent with China and its handling of the virus. This new “branch” of diplomacy is best summed up by what Foreign Minister Wang Yi said to CNN in late May: “We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honor and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts.” Wolf warrior diplomacy is viewed by Chinese officials as a purely defensive response to perceived threats/offenses against China. Researcher Rashid Abdi noted on Twitter that Ambassador Qin used this approach with President Bihi. In this regard, Beijing was defending itself against threats by “Taiwanese separatist forces” aided by Somaliland.
Something that the “big vs. small countries” mindset and wolf warrior diplomacy do not comprehend (or care about) is that governments have their own constituencies and values that overt pressure will not change. And when smaller countries, particularly ones unrecognized by the international community, are faced with threats, they may not be as inclined to back down. The way in which Chinese officials worked to stop the development of the Taiwan-Somaliland relationship just continues the pattern of how they’ve been treated before other countries. And that, perhaps, is why this new relationship did not fall apart despite Beijing’s best efforts: the two can relate to each other in getting pressured or strong-armed by larger countries.
They have more to learn from each other on a more even playing field. Somaliland may have more to gain from a relationship with Taipei, which won’t provide conditional aid, push for port or natural resource access, or use predatory financial practices, than one with Beijing, which is no stranger to throwing its economic weight around. China can throw money and infrastructure packages at Somaliland, but that may not be very attractive in 2020 after seeing how other countries have struggled with paying back loans. Taiwan can offer mutual respect—something that it fights for around the globe every day, something that is in short supply for Somaliland internationally, and something that Beijing cannot provide. Mutual respect between two unrecognized countries will foster stronger bonds than any economic package ever could.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
Thomas J. Shattuck is a Research Associate in the Asia Program and the Managing Editor at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.