Taiwan’s Africa outreach irks China

Based on an agreement reached on 26 February this year, Republic of China (Taiwan) recently opened a representative office on 17 August in Hargeisa, the capital of Republic of Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous region within Somalia that is not recognised internationally as a separate political entity. Reciprocally, Somaliland will also establish a “Somaliland Representative Office” in Taipei in September. This development highlights a reversal in trend of Taiwan’s dwindling formal diplomatic relations since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016. Notwithstanding their different histories and status in international politics, Taiwan and Somaliland are two political entities aspiring to gain international recognition.

Unsurprisingly, the development has sparked a diplomatic brawl and has attracted the ire of both China, which sees the Taiwan region as an inalienable part of China’s territory, and Somalia, which has a similar view of Somaliland. For over fifty years, the Chinese government has consistently adhered to the ‘One China’ principle and has resolutely opposed any attempt to separate Taiwan from China. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian expressed firm opposition to any form of official or political contact between Taiwan region and Somaliland. He cautioned that:

“Don’t make the mistake of seeking wiggle room where there is none. Those going against the trend to challenge the one-China principle will get burned and swallow the bitter fruit.”

Similarly, Somalia also cautioned Taiwan against interfering with Somalia’s unity, integrity, and bypassing official channels. If need be, the Somalia Federal government will resort to necessary measures under international law to protect the nation’s unity.

On its part, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Beijing and has defended the move to establish representative office in Hargeisa by insisting that the Taiwanese people and government have sought to develop relationship with every country that values democracy and peace, and that the Taiwan-Somaliland partnership is bound together by shared ideals and values of freedom, democracy, justice, and rule of law.

The series of tweets and press releases from both sides have been carefully crafted in a manner that reflects ambiguity. It is worth noting that although some form of an implicit ‘recognition’ of each other’s territories is certainly implied, the fact that ‘recognition’ is not directly stated suggests a careful approach being followed by Taiwan and Somaliland. Both are planning to develop their relationship in an incremental manner, starting with a less-structured relationship. By taking a slower approach, both are deliberately taking steps to ensure their actions do not antagonize China. Taiwan and Somaliland are yet to establish formal diplomatic relations. Recognition and diplomatic relations do not go hand in hand and are separate process given the considerations of political sensitivities. Representative offices are not embassies per say but are a diplomatic mechanism to enhance bilateral cooperation. Exchanging representative offices does not constitute diplomatic recognition.

It is a common practice for Taipei to have trade offices and commercial representatives even in countries where it has no diplomatic relationship. It has five trade offices in Africa that does not recognise Taipei, notably in South Africa and Nigeria, Africa’s two-largest economies. In 2019, Taiwan had 93 representative offices in countries with whom it did not have any formal diplomatic relations. Therefore, if Somaliland and Taiwan’s move to establish representative offices is restricted to purely commercial ties, as opposed to any form of political or diplomatic recognition, then there is a slight possibility of Beijing accommodating Taiwan’s commercial presence in Somaliland, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

Since 2000, African countries have overwhelmingly recognised China as opposed to Taiwan primarily through the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) platform. One after another, countries such as Liberia, Chad, Senegal, Malawi, Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Burkina Faso have switched alliances by choosing China over Taiwan. From an African perspective, the decision to side with China is pragmatic and driven purely by economic considerations. Developing relations with the world’s second largest economy, China, provides African countries with an alternative to the erstwhile colonial powers in West. Beijing’s credentials as a prominent member of the ‘Global South’ helps its case. Beijing has flexed its economic heft by offering economic aid to a host of developing African countries with the aim of reducing Taipei’s diplomatic ties, diminish its status as a nation-state, isolate Taiwan from the international community, and compel the Taiwanese government to negotiate with China for the island’s reunification. Due to this continuous pressure and onslaught, only 15 countries currently maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, with the Kingdom of Eswatini being Taipei’s only partner in the African continent.

In early 1960s, as African nations gained independence, both Beijing and Taipei sought to establish diplomatic ties across the continent and actively court African political movements to garner African recognition. Taiwan’s initial focus was on agricultural aid programmes to help African farmers grow rice by incorporating knowledge and technical sharing and offering large-scale training programs. Taiwan funded the programs, while African countries hosted delegations. However, its relationship frayed over time. Development aid did not translate into political support, cumulating in Taiwan’s ejection from the United Nations in 1971. At the time, 27 African countries voted in support of the resolution, thereby effectively denying Taiwan’s legitimacy as an independent nation. Since then, People’s Republic of China has the advantage and has successfully strengthened its political, diplomatic, and economic presence in the African continent.

Time and again, African stakeholders have stated that they do not want to get caught in-between a Cold War scenario where they are forced to pick sides between US and China. Their principle purpose is to safeguard and promote African national interests. However, for China, there are certain issues that are extremely sensitive. These issues can be clubbed together under the acronym of “4THKXJ” as expounded by Eric Oleander, co-founder of the China-Africa Project.

T #1: Tiananmen Square

T #2: The Communist Party

T #3: Taiwan

T #4: Tibet

Hong Kong

Xinjiang

These six sensitive issues are China’s “proverbial “red lines” that if crossed will prompt immediate retribution and effectively bring bilateral relations to a grinding halt.” The quicker African stakeholders understand these priorities of their Chinese counterparts across the negotiating table, the better it will bode for the China-Africa partnership.

Within Africa, various contrasting perceptions of the Taiwan-Somaliland agreement have begun to emerge. While some commentators suggest that Somaliland will become a hotspot for the emerging tensions between US and China, attract more foreign forces in the Gulf of Aden, and further complicate the political dynamics in the Horn of Africa, others appreciate Somaliland’s determination to forge ahead on a path of its own choosing, despite the looming fear of attracting retribution for defying China.

It goes without saying that both Taiwan and Somaliland would certainly welcome greater recognition from the international community. However, neither are in a position to deliver recognition the other wants or shape wider international views of the other. Creating unnecessary tensions over recognition is ill-advised. However, the benefits that the agreement offers is purely economic. Taiwan remains an important economic actor and through this agreement, Taiwan can help develop Somaliland’s economy by investing in sectors such as agriculture, energy, fisheries, mining, public health, education, and information and communication technology. Similarly, Somaliland’s strategic location on the Red Sea and its natural resources has the potential to enable Taiwan to venture into the African continent.

While the idea of recognition is alluring especially for people living in areas that are unrecognised, it is not as important as many believe. Ultimately, the exact nature of the relationship is more significant than the formal terms that are used to describe the relationship. What matters is the spirit of cooperation that underpins the relationship and the tangible steps they will take to cooperate in the future. Taiwan’s investment in Somaliland and Somaliland’s ability to give Taiwan an economic foothold in Africa makes the agreement potentially beneficial for both. At this stage, this is more important and urgent than any formal mutual recognition for Taiwan and Somaliland.

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