HARGEISA, Somaliland—Shortly after a fire destroyed the largest market in this independence-minded Somali region, a senior Chinese diplomat requested permission to visit to pay his respects.
Fei Shengchao, Beijing’s ambassador to Somalia, told Somaliland authorities he wanted to discuss how China could help mitigate the impact of the disaster, which devastated the local economy, and help victims of the disaster. Covid-19 and drought in East Africa.
As the visit approached, Mr. Fei added a few more stops to his itinerary in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital: He wanted to meet lawmakers. And the leaders of the opposition. And university students.
The ambassador’s demands immediately raised suspicion among Somaliland authorities. Beijing’s real agenda, they concluded, was not to talk about emergency aid. This was to recruit local allies to sabotage Somaliland’s warm diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
“It was purely political,” said Essa Kayd, Somaliland’s foreign minister.
Mr. Kayd told Mr. Fei that he was not welcome. The trip never took place.
“We thought it was inappropriate, not because we feared anything, but because it was different from the agenda we had agreed on,” Ms. Kayd in an interview.
The Waheen Market fire caused $1.5 billion in damage.
Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal
Few African regions have the nerve to say no to China, whose state-owned enterprises have blanketed the continent with sprawling seaports, sleek airport terminals, slick highways and soaring debt.
Somaliland is one of the few, one of the last two Taiwanese diplomatic outposts in sub-Saharan Africa.
Somaliland is “open to any bilateral relationship we can have with any country, but it should be unconditional, no strings attached,” Kayd said. “We’re not going to allow anyone to dictate who we can have a relationship with.”
The Sino-Taiwanese standoff, which is raising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and pushing Washington and Beijing towards a new cold war, is also being played out in the Horn of Africa. Somaliland, whose goal is recognition as an independent state from Somalia, has allied itself with Taiwan, whose goal is to remain separate from the People’s Republic of China.
Somaliland’s leaders “not only seek secession, but also fan the flames to undermine the independence and unification of other countries, harming others without benefiting from them,” Fei told the Wall Street Journal. “They will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.”
The ambassador declined to comment on his aborted trip to Hargeisa after April’s Waheen Market fire caused $1.5 billion in damage.
Meanwhile, the question of independence has made natural companions of China, which regards Taiwan, a self-governing island 100 miles off its coast, as part of its territory, and Somalia, which feels the same thing about Somaliland.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that the United States would not let China isolate Taiwan and that her trip was meant to show a “solid relationship built on the status quo.” Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, Somalia’s foreign ministry released a statement in apparent response to US President Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan last week. Beijing reacted angrily to Pelosi’s visit, conducting days of military exercises around Taiwan.
Somalia “declares its full solidarity with the People’s Republic of China in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity, while affirming its firm position to abide by the one-China policy, considering Taiwan as an inalienable part of Chinese territory. ”, the Somali ministry said.
China has donated armored personnel carriers, ambulances, fuel trucks and landmine detectors to Somalia, and pledged food aid, according to Beijing’s embassy in Mogadishu. Earlier this year, China appointed a special envoy to the Horn of Africa, who in June led what Beijing described as a peace conference with governments in the region.
Taking an opposing stance to that of Somalia, Somaliland parliamentarians issued a statement on Monday denouncing Chinese military exercises near Taiwan “as it could destabilize peace in the region”.
Washington, meanwhile, is trying to juggle its interests in the Horn. The Pentagon operates a major base in Djibouti, neighboring Somalia; China has its own seaside military installation a few miles away, with enough space on the docks to dock an aircraft carrier.
The United States has deep ties to Somalia through the never-ending war against al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda’s most active global affiliate, which makes it wary of any diplomatic move that could break the country and weaken the fragile government in Mogadishu.
President Biden recently ordered hundreds of US special operators to set up camp in Somalia to train and advise local commandos to fight al-Shabaab. Former President Donald Trump withdrew some 700 US troops from the country in the final days of his term, and Mr Biden’s decision marks a reversal.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is tempted by the strategic appeal of Somaliland, which is relatively stable and relatively democratic. There is growing support in Congress for closer direct ties with Somaliland.
A former British protectorate, Somaliland gained independence on June 26, 1960, five days before Somalia became independent from Italy. The two countries united soon after, but relations soured when Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre bombed Hargeisa and massacred Somalilanders by the tens of thousands in the late 1980s.
Somaliland declared itself independent in 1991.
Famine and clan warfare soon followed across Somalia, with events culminating in a failed US-led intervention, the 1993 downing of two US Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu, and the death of 18 US Army Rangers, Delta Force operators and other US troops.
After a frustrating decades-long quest for international recognition, Somaliland sees an opportunity in great power competition between the United States and China. Somaliland leaders have offered the Pentagon to use Berbera Port and Airstrip, located on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, overlooking crucial shipping lanes between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal.
The alternative, Somalilanders grimly hint, is Chinese domination of the region.
“If the world wants to give China 850 km [528 miles] of waterway despite Somaliland, Somaliland will not be the only loser,” said Edna Adan, Somaliland’s former foreign minister, former first lady and grand dame of its independence campaign.
Edna Adan, former foreign minister of Somaliland.
Michael M. Phillips/The Wall Street Journal
In May, General Stephen Townsend, then commander of US forces in Africa, and Larry André, US ambassador to Somalia, paid a surprise visit to Berbera to inspect the docks and the runway, which once served as an airstrip. emergency landing for the space shuttle.
The US military already has access agreements for hangars and other facilities in Mombasa, Kenya; Libreville, Gabon; and Entebbe, Uganda.
“If the United States does nothing in Somaliland, you will end up with a [Somaliland] government that cannot say no to China’s influence,” a senior US military official said.
Taiwan had more friends in Africa. Burkina Faso, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe have switched allegiance to China over the past 10 years. Today, Taipei’s remaining diplomatic partners among the 54 UN-recognized African countries are the small kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, and Somaliland, which exchanged representatives with Taiwan in 2020. Taipei also maintains a trade office in Nigeria and two lower level offices. liaison offices in South Africa.
The Taiwan office in Hargeisa resembles a two-storey luxury house within a walled compound. The red, white and blue flag of the Republic of China, the official name of the government of Taipei, flies outside.
The Chinese sent several delegations to Hargeisa in an attempt to kill the alliance in the cradle, recalled Abdinasir Hersi, director general of Somaliland’s foreign ministry at the time. Beijing has offered to build roads and airports if Somaliland avoids Taiwan.
The Somalilanders did not move.
The Chinese were furious, Mr. Hersi recalls. Beijing was again angered when Somaliland sent an official delegation to Taiwan this year.
Taiwan is sending five diplomats to Hargeisa, along with technical experts in health, agriculture, fisheries and other fields. During the Covid-19 crisis, Taiwan provided Somaliland with vaccines, oxygen generators, testing equipment, ventilators and ambulances.
“It’s a pending geopolitical chess piece,” said Ambassador Allen Chenwa Lou, Taiwan’s top representative in Hargeisa.