The self-declared state of Somaliland is seeking US recognition as it pitches itself as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa.
There have been growing calls for Washington to set up a representative office in Somaliland, which welcomed a congressional staff delegation to its capital Hargeisa in mid-December.
Diplomats and observers have said that in return for opening a diplomatic office, or formal diplomatic recognition, the port of Berbera could help the United States diversify away from neighbouring Djibouti, where China has a military base and has funded and built ports and free-trade zones.
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President Musa Bihi Abdi said at the time of the US fact-finding mission, mostly composed of Republican staff, that Somaliland was committed to working with democratic nations such as the US.
“We profoundly discussed Somaliland-US relations, stability, development, vibrant democracies and elections,” Abdi said.
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The visit came a month after Somaliland Foreign Minister Essa Kayd Mohamoud and special envoy Edna Adan Ismail led a delegation to meet Washington officials.
Besides making a case for recognition, the delegation wanted Washington to remove it from its inclusion in the State Department’s “Level 4: Do not travel” classification for Somalia, citing harm to its economy.
In return for recognition, Somaliland has welcomed investment from American business and also promised Washington that it will resist Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa.
Bashir Goth, head of mission in Washington told Politico that the delegation had gone to the US “to show we have the same enemy and our long-term strategy is to be closer to democratic and market economies like the US”.
He also said: “We are countering China and Chinese influence in Africa and we ask for US help.”
Taiwan, which China considers as a breakaway province, opened a representative office in Hargeisa in August 2020. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen described it “an important milestone for the Taiwan-Somaliland partnership”, but the move drew strong protests from Beijing.
Djibouti, Ethiopia and Turkey have consulates in Hargeisa while Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Kenya and the European Union all have offices there as well.
Although Somaliland split from Somalia 30 years ago, it lacks international recognition and has set up representative offices in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sweden, the UAE, Britain and the US in a bid to win international support.
Analysts say that as China increases its presence in the Horn of Africa – especially Djibouti, where it has funded and built ports and free-trade zones, as well as established its first overseas naval base – the US could use Berbera, a port on the Gulf of Aden, to diversify away from Djibouti.
Although the US has a military base in Djibouti, recognising Somaliland would bring “significant” benefits “starting with allowing Washington to diversify away from Djibouti, a country on which it is overly reliant and that is increasingly under Chinese influence”, according to a report last year by Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation think tank.
Meservey argued that Beijing’s “unparalleled influence in [Djibouti] has already impeded American operations – and positions China to shut down US activity in the case of a confrontation between the two countries”.
Analysts and former US diplomats have said it is time to recognise Somaliland.
Robert O’Brien, the former US national security adviser, said recognising Somaliland as an independent country “is a key step in stemming the Chinese Communist Party’s rising tide on the continent and would show other nations that there is an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative in East Africa and around the world”.
“When a free and developing nation stands up to China and rejects its tainted aid, the United States should make every effort to help it succeed, particularly when in a strategically vital region. Somaliland is one such country and deserves both US recognition and assistance,” he said.
Guled Ahmed, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the recent developments “show a new US Horn of Africa geopolitical momentum building that could lead to at least the US government opening a diplomatic office in Hargeisa”.
He said the US could be eyeing maritime development and a security partnership in the Gulf of Aden and perhaps recognition in near future.
Somaliland has already signed oil exploration development with Genel Energy and Taiwan CPC Corporation via a public-private partnership.
“US companies will likely follow suit since US oil companies formally own drilling rights of some of Somaliland’s oil blocks,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said that from China’s point of view, “Somaliland recognising or having diplomatic relations with Taiwan is a threat to its maritime silk road and Belt and Road Initiative, and it will disrupt its illegal fishing activities within the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean”.
The Chinese ambassador to Somalia, Fei Shengchao, has dismissed reports that Chinese companies were engaged in illegal fishing in Somali territorial waters, adding that China fully respects the country’s sovereignty.
“Fishing cooperation is based on mutual agreement. It contributes millions of dollars to Somalia with no strings at all. There are those who don’t want to see a penny paid to Somalia and keep muddying the water to ‘fish’ for themselves,” Fei tweeted on December 27.
Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said “the voice that calls for recognition is higher than before”.
But she said the reason for Somaliland and Taiwan’s current relationship was their respective lack of international recognition. “If the US recognises Somaliland, more countries will follow suit,” Sun said.
“I doubt China will reject the idea. And if China is willing to extend diplomatic recognition of Somaliland, what leverage does Taiwan still have?”
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However, the US policy had been to follow the lead of the African Union, which up to this point had not favoured recognition of Somaliland as an independent country, said David Shinn, a former US diplomat in Ethiopia and professor at George Washington University.
“It treats Somaliland as part of Somalia. While there is considerable sympathy for Somaliland in the United States, I am not aware there is any intention to change US policy on this matter,” Shinn said.
“There probably are some members of Congress that favour recognition of Somaliland, but this is a decision made by the executive branch.
“So long as Somaliland is not recognised by any country, this is not a major issue. If Somaliland were to receive diplomatic recognition from a number of countries, China would be concerned that Somaliland might officially recognise Taiwan. China would react badly to such a development.”
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.